High Holidays: Hard Work

After a month away from my desk, my community, and New York, I returned yesterday to all three. I had a wonderful vacation, truly and genuinely restorative, and it must be written on my face because everyone who sees me comments that I look rested. The last comment was- verbatim- “Rabbi, you look wonderful and rested. We’ll take care of that.” You have to love it.

I would be breaking no new ground to say that vacations are a good thing. We all know that, and only the martyr-by-choice executives allow themselves to think otherwise. There really is no substitute for removing oneself from everyday routines and responsibilities in order to be able not only to renew those all-important batteries, but also to look at one’s life with clear eyes and a fresh perspective. For me- and this is certainly related to my line of work- the farther away I go, the better it is for me.

It’s not at all that I dislike my work or my life. Au contraire! It’s just that the omnipresence of my community in both home and work environments (they are one and the same) virtually dictate that the only way to truly “be away” is to go away. That’s exactly what I did, and that, I’m sure, is why I feel refreshed and renewed.

When you think about it in those terms, the High Holiday experience in our tradition is an interesting riff on the idea of gaining perspective by retreating from the usual and ordinary.

Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur also demand of us that we abandon our usual pursuits and devote ourselves whole-heartedly to the task of gaining perspective on our lives, and how we might improve them.

The core idea of “heshbon hanefesh”- of soulful introspection- obliges us to focus in on those things that we might otherwise, consciously or unconsciously, choose to avoid. There is no hiding from oneself or from God on the High Holidays. That glare of that enhanced perspective is designed to facilitate the likelihood of real and substantive change. It is what we hope and pray for at this time of year.

But the High Holidays are no one’s idea of a vacation. They are hard work.

And rather than leave behind community to accomplish the challenge at hand, we actually seek community out, to the point where the confessional aspects of the liturgy are written in the plural, not the singular. Penitence is an experience that is best accomplished among others. People who rarely if ever set foot in a synagogue, do so on the High Holidays. There is something irretrievably powerful about praying, in the words of the Kol Nidre, “im ha’avaryanim,” with other sinners. On Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, we run towards our community, not from it.

As we approach this awesome time of year, my wish for us all is that we have the wisdom to lean on each other so as to improve ourselves, and in so doing, that we are privileged to improve our families and communities in the process. A shanah tovah to us all, and may the year to come be rich with blessings and with peace.

Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is spiritual leader of The Forest Hills Jewish Center, a Conservative congregation

About the Author
Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is the Rabbi Emeritus of the Forest Hills Jewish Center in Queens.