In the Jewish world, we are fast approaching Rosh Hashanah, the traditional Jewish New Year, which commences on Sunday evening, September 9th, beginning a season of “Ten Days of Repentance” that culminates in Yom Kippur, our traditional “Day of Atonement”. These special days in our calendar–which have become known as “the High Holidays” –are usually attended by many thousands, if not millions, of Jews who do not usually attend other Shabbat and holiday services during the year.
Why? What is it that brings so many non-observant Jews out of the woodwork to enter the synagogue on these days?
For some people, it is simply nostalgia. It makes them feel good. They like the familiar melodies, even if the words don’t mean much to them.
For others, it is a family thing–they go because the family goes–or the family used to go. It is a kinship thing. It keeps us connected to our immediate family, and perhaps our extended family.
For still others, it is a matter of Jewish solidarity. Whether one believes in God or prayer or not, one goes to synagogue on this day to stay connected to one’s tribe, one’s people. It is a day of Jewish identification in which one’s presence in the synagogue reminds one that he or she is Jewish, whatever that might mean, given the growing diversity of expressions of Jewish identity in our time.
And for others, they go because they like the rabbi and appreciate all the time, effort and thought that he or she puts into his or her sermons, which are delivered passionately and persuasively to audiences who are looking for inspiration at this time of the year. There is nothing more gratifying to a rabbi than and congregant telling him or her that he or she was inspired by his or her preaching and teaching.
And perhaps for some, they attend because they take the liturgy seriously and are moved by the traditional and contemporary messages of the prayers, by the readings from the Torah which are special for these sacred days and by additional meaningful readings that can be found in contemporary mahzorim (special prayer books for these sacred days), such as the relatively new LEV SHALEM mahzor of the Conservative movement.
For example, one of the central prayers which is recited over and over again during Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur says: “The Holy God is sanctified through Righteousness”. It is remarkable religious reminder that prayer on these days is not enough. Instead, prayer is supposed to catalyze us to engage in ethical living and to establish and maintain just communities and a moral society.
Or, as another example, on the first day of Rosh Hashanah, we read from Chapter 21 of the book of Genesis about the story of Ishmael and Hagar—the progenitors of the another people, the Muslim nation– and in so doing, we recall the famous verse
But God heard the boy crying, and the angel of God called to Hagar from heaven, “Hagar, what’s wrong? Do not be afraid! God hears the cry of a child wherever he is.’ “
(Genesis 21:17, my translation)
This reminds us that God cares for the well-being of every child in this world, not just for the children of my tribe or nation or religion. Indeed, Rosh Hashanah is “the birthday of the world”, according to our liturgy, and not the birthday of our nation (this would be the Exodus narrative). One of the main messages of these High Holidays is the importance of our being part of humanity, rather than a nation that dwells alone.
During the same holiday—on the second day of the observance of Rosh Hashanah– we also read chapter 22 of Genesis, about the Binding of Isaac, which connects us to the unique history of our own people, the Jewish People, as developed through the line of Isaac and his children. It is this special combination of particularity and universal concern for all humanity that makes these sacred days so unique and meaningful.
Whatever your reasons for attending synagogue services during the upcoming high holidays– perhaps it is for all of these reasons or many of them or none of them–may I take this opportunity to wish all my Jewish readers around the world a Year of Health, Fulfillment and Peace, for the Jewish People and for all of God’s children.