The greatest casualty of my rabbinate has been my spiritual life on the High Holy Days.
I have often joked with people that I became a rabbi so that I would have something to do all day on Yom Kippur, but the fact is that “multitasking” may have been a term invented to describe what rabbis and cantors do on these holiest of days. When I yearn to lose myself in the poignancy of phrase, the heartbreak of my shortcomings or the stratospheric resonance of my chazzan’s angelic voice, I am pulled to the present by the need to know what’s next, whether we are on time and if my sermon will/did inspire or insult.
What irony! My calling is to show people a path to deeper meaning in the tradition, and I am disabled in my own journey by that very task.
Fortunately, my desperate grab for a flash of meaning has opened my eyes to a personal truth which, I hope, has general application. Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur (just like Shabbat and all the various holidays) are not full days of religious meaning. They simply provide the context and permission for moments of significance. I don’t live my life in years, weeks or even days — I live, as we all do, moment to moment.
I am blessed to spend the High Holidays with many hundreds of brothers and sisters. No matter where I turn in our sanctuary, I cannot help but be aware of their presence. But when the time comes for my individual devotion — the personal Amidah — I have found intense and profound privacy under the shelter of my tallit. Perhaps it looks like an affectation to the observer, this contemporary Jew in an Old-World pose, but for those few minutes of praise and penitence I am alone passing beneath the staff of my Shepherd. When I emerge from my prayers and lift the cloth from my head, I am always surprised at the expanse around me and the number of precious souls who fill it.
Maybe there is additional spiritual meaning to be found in reminding people of page numbers, pointing out a significant phrase or asking them to stand up, sit down and fight-fight-fight. For me, those are the equivalent times my congregants spend listening to chanting, reading unfamiliar words or contending with a growling stomach. I know that if I were seated with them, I would have to search just as diligently to find my moments of inspiration.
Rabbi Neil Gilman famously described the theology of the modern Jew as a connect-the-dots picture — only on our page, the dots are not numbered. The blessing of the Days of Awe, when we clock more consecutive hours in worship than any other time, is a chance to perceive the template. Gathered together, diligent Jews who have set aside pressing business to sit together out of some combination of desire and obligation, we each look for the moment. Is it the poetry of a medieval prayer? Is it the piercing sound of the shofar? Is it the intellectual challenge of the Torah readings, all of which describe sacrifices of something valuable? Is it the chance to be in the presence of old friends, new friends, and family and taste a commonality of purpose across party lines of every kind?
For each person the moment will be different, a different dot on the page. Whether gathered by the thousands or the dozens or whether alone at the computer screen, the spark of meaning that lights the soul-flame in the Jewish heart adds to the well of devotion available to all.
At the risk of giving away my own beliefs, likely different from yours, let me add that I hope these moments, individual and collected, are pleasing to the Holy One. I hope God sees them as the willingness of our people to seek, to expect, to demand an instant of finding favor in God’s eyes, and thus to reaffirm the awe-filled holiness of the days.
A classic Talmudic adage warns against overreaching: if you grasped too much, you did not grasp anything; if you grasped less, you grasp [it all]. What is true in legal argument is true in shul. Find your moment and hold it tight. May you be inspired and inscribed for a very good year.
Rabbi Jack Moline is the spiritual leader of Agudas Achim Congregation in Alexandria.