At first glance, comedians, horror movies, and the High Holydays could not be any more different. But if we look deeper, they all contain a common thread, and one particularly relevant to this year.
Comedians: One of my favourite joke books is Isaac Asimov’s Treasury of Humor. Yes, Asimov the prolific science-fiction writer compiled a book of over 600 jokes. But this is the only joke book I’ve ever read that includes notes about the jokes – why they are funny and how to tell them. It’s almost as if Asimov is playing the role of medieval Torah commentator Rashi, writing his glosses on the jokes as he studies and classifies them.
Like any artist or performer, comedians take their work seriously. A well-constructed and delivered joke takes hours of effort and preparation to make it seem spontaneous. The best jokes (for me) are the ones that speak a deep truth – about our values, our relationships, and the world around us. In that way, comedy is a device for social commentary: it can force us to confront aspects of ourselves, softening the blow with humour.
To be effective, comedy needs sharp punch lines and a degree of shock value. Some comedians get up on stage and tell their stories through a litany of obscenities, often to roars of laughter. But sometimes the swear words become the story itself instead of the device, and that is where it goes wrong. Comedy has two elements: the theatre and the content/substance. To convey the message well, there needs to be just enough theatre to couch the deeper substance. Knowing that balance separates the clever comedians from the crass ones.
While not a huge fan of horror movies, I do enjoy the post-apocalyptic genre, particularly when zombies are involved. What I like about them is how they challenge us: when all of the accoutrements of regular daily life are stripped away, what is left? Do we, as in Lord of the Flies, revert to animal-like behaviour when we are literally fighting for our lives in a world devoid of the usual protections? And what of most people’s greatest fear – death? The notion of zombies throws ideas of heaven, hell, and resurrection into disarray.
The blood and gore seem to be an essential component of such examinations of the human condition. That aspect can be too much for some viewers. It is there for shock value, and also to send a message: we are going to confront some existential fears, so prepare to be made uncomfortable.
In this way, the horror genre – like comedy – has two components: the theatre: the gore, and content/substance: the deeper examination of what makes us human. Some horror movies are pure blood fests – they are the equivalent of the potty-mouthed comedian. But when done well, there is just enough gore to get us into the appropriate zone to deal with the real issues.
And that brings us to the upcoming High Holydays, and the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on Jewish ritual practice. As a result of government blunders in Melbourne, we have been in lockdown for over six weeks. Many other cities around the world are also experiencing restrictions of varying degrees. For months, we have not been able to pray with a minyan, eat Shabbat meals with friends and family, or fulfil many of the daily and weekly rituals so deeply embedded in our Jewish lives. Without them, there is an emptiness that zoom does not adequately fill (especially if you are already oisgezoomt). Judaism is not a religion designed to be observed on a desert island, or on a mountaintop in Tibet (side note: there are only a small number of mitzvot that cannot be observed on a desert island – mishloach manot on Purim is a prominent example). Community is such an important part of our religion.
During the Holyday season of Tishrei, our ritual practices crank up to the next level. Some are mandatory, like shofar on Rosh Hashanah, fasting on Yom Kippur; some are customs and practices observed when we are actually with a minyan. This year will be very challenging and the restrictions will leave a huge void in our lives. For many people, without these things it won’t feel like yom tov.
But what are these special days really about? Are they about sitting in shul for hours? Inspirational chazanim? Singing and chanting together? Actually, no.
Rosh Hashanah is about renewing/refreshing God as King of the world, and Yom Kippur is about forgiveness and cleaning our slate. At their core, they are about our relationship with God. These days ask us for a deep examination of our place in the world, how we live a meaningful life, and our connection to the Divine. On Yom Kippur, there are five prayer services which represent a progression through the five layers of our souls, culminating in the intimacy of the Ne’ilah service, when the deepest part of us can commune with the deepest part of God.
So if that’s the main part, what about the sitting in shul and the singing? Like comedy and horror, we can think of our service during the high Holydays as having two elements: the theatre: the rituals that establish the appropriate setting, and the content/substance: the work on our relationship with God as our King, on understanding both our human frailties and the immense power of our souls, and therefore our place and purpose in this world.
This year, the theatre aspect will be seriously curtailed. We may find comfort in the knowledge that being unable to pray with a minyan does not detract from any of the substance whatsoever. However, it still poses a serious personal challenge: without the support of communal ritual, how do we get into ‘the zone’ to approach the substance? There are no simple answers to this question. However, by repositioning the ritual as a pathway to the substance, each person individually can find their alternative pathways to help them through the spiritual journey of these days. It may be singing. It may be reading or telling stories. It may be going for a walk in the park and contemplating. It will certainly not be as other years.
The Chassidic Masters explain that every year with the blowing of the shofar, an ohr chadash – a fresh spiritual energy – enters the world. This year more than most, we need something new and special to help us navigate the current challenges.