Like some gigantic parabolic curve that exists in both time and space, the two adjoining Hebrew months of Nisan and Iyar have their way with us.
Within days of the spiritual exhilaration of Passover, the urgent moral imperative to feel the despair of the Holocaust descends upon us with Yom Hashoa. We go from singing of God’s redemptive power and the miracle of the splitting of the Sea of Reeds directly into the horrific and unknowable abyss of Nazi cruelty. And then, after a wrenching day of memory for fallen soldiers in Israel, we are elevated once again to the heights of exhilaration as we celebrate the rebirth of Jewish statehood and independence in our historic homeland.
People always assume that, for rabbis, the High Holidays are the most difficult and trying time of year. And it is, of course, true that Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are pressure packed- but largely for different reasons than this time of year.
There is a need that many rabbis feel- much of it self-imposed- to hit it out of the park" on the High Holidays. After all, the synagogues are packed with large numbers of Jews whom we don’t see all that often, and there we tend to sense that this is our "big chance" to say or do something that will make them want to come back, to taste more, perhaps to connect on more than a superficial level. And, of course, the themes of judgment and human mortality are compelling in an existentially threatening way.
But personally, I think the pressure of the High Holidays is, sadly, less about the sense of standing in divine judgment than it is wanting to be successful, to have one’s sermons be thought worthy and one’s services memorable. I wish that weren’t the case, and this is, of course, my own personal feeling, not based on any scientific data. But if anything, I find that the September holidays far too often leave me enervated just for the sheer effort of trying to "do it right" for everyone else. I miss the days when I could sit in the pews and let my mind wander, or stand and feel in awe while hearing the words "who shall live and who shall die." It’s all about other people’s catharsis on the High Holidays- at least for me.
For whatever reason(s), I have a much more personal and visceral reaction to the mood swings of Passover-Yom Hashoa/Yom Hazikaron-Yom Ha’atzma’ut.
I suspect that, at its core, my more powerful connection to this dynamic is rooted in the fact that the discovery of both the vibrancy of Israel and the decimation of European Jewry were powerful factors in my becoming who I am as an adult Jew.
Spending my junior year abroad in Israel in the early 70’s quite literally changed my life forever; I would never be the same thereafter. And travelling to Poland in the late 80’s (and again just a few years ago) brought home the reality of the Shoah in ways that words and pictures could never have done for me. That experience, too, altered my reality framework as a Jew in an irreversible way. I gained the very bedrock of my Jewish identity with those two experiences, though I had been studying and living Judaism for a lifetime before them.
And so it is that when this time of year rolls around, I feel the intensity of the Jewish calendar in a deeply personal way despite my professional responsibilities. To be sure, because of my connection to these special days, I want to "do them right" for the people in my community. In my book, any program that we do on Yom Hashoa or Yom Ha’atzma’ut has to be worth the days themselves. We dare not trivialize either.
But I the person- more than the rabbi- grieve on Yom Hashoa for all that was lost to us in the Holocaust, and I celebrate on Yom Ha’atzma’ut for the blessing of having a Jewish state, no matter how imperfect she might occasionally show herself to be. Nisan and Iyar take me on a wild ride… and I wouldn’t miss it for the world.
Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is spiritual leader of The Forest Hills Jewish Center, a Conservative congregation