The haunting melodies of the high holidays are arguably among the best known in the Jewish world. Depending on the tradition most familiar to you, it is possible to walk into practically any synagogue of any style, hear certain melodies, and immediately know that the High Holiday season is in full gear.
There is much in the High Holiday liturgy that is troubling and confusing. Does God’s judgement really determine who lives and who dies? Can repentance, prayer and charity — teshuvah, t’filah and tzedakah — really avert an evil decree? What draws us to this liturgy? For that matter, what attracts Jews of all types to listen, read, and review these prayers year in and year out?
We enter a synagogue for all sorts of reasons. For some, it is fulfilling God’s will. For others, it’s to provide or receive support or comfort. For some it’s for friendship. For others it’s for words or poetry or music. For some, it’s for study. For others, it’s due to guilt. For all, it can be the warmth and power of community.
A synagogue is called a Beit Knesset – a gathering place. It’s not called a House of Prayer or a House of Study. It’s a house in which to gather – to be with community. If the language doesn’t speak to us, maybe the music does. If the music doesn’t resonate, then maybe it’s the comfort of the crowd. If the crowd is too much, maybe it’s the words we’ll hear or simply the faces of the people we know and love.
Whatever brings you into the synagogue this year, find your own place. Listen to the music. Read the words. Look at the crowd. While every person in the room is there for their own reason, they are in a Beit Knesset, a central institution of Jewish life for generations.
The holiday season has the potential to link us to family and friends – to generations before and those yet to come. May we all experience a healthy, productive, fulfilling and sweet new year.