How I find meaning in traditional High Holy Days services.
As former House Speaker Tip O’Neill correctly pointed out, all politics is local. For me, all prayer is personal. For the first 56 years of my life, the climax of the High Holy Days service was the final paragraph of the Priestly Blessing when I finally had the official opportunity to beg God to give my parents, Holocaust survivors, another year of life. In addition, for the last 36 years, I’ve used the same opportunity to focus on my wife, and for the last 29, on my children.
There are at least two problems with this. First, these words constitute only a scant few minutes of a multi-hour service. What do we do with the rest of our time?
Second, according to many rabbis, including my teacher, the Rav, the late Rabbi Joseph Soloveichik, we are forbidden from having a favorite prayer. Each verse should receive the same attention and focus from us.
Then again, though they stand before us, we are not praying to our rabbis. We are praying to God. Unlike in Christianity, our clergy are no closer to God than we are. We need no intermediaries to communicate with our Maker. Even if we choose to obey our rabbis’ halachic dictates, we can still retain our own theological opinions.
Almost a decade ago, our youngest child suffered a traumatic brain injury that incapacitated her for years. During that time, I must confess I only had one person in mind when I prayed. Later, when she was in synagogue with me, I looked at her as I prayed. Before then, when she was still in bed, I saw her nonetheless. I must also confess that I emotionally spoke the words of the prayer for healing the sick whether the rest of the congregation was reciting them or not. I even spoke them when I was praying by myself every morning.
I spoke them when I wasn’t praying as well, though it could be argued that speaking them defines prayer. I repeated them mindlessly, a religious mantra of sorts, each of the innumerable times I sat helplessly with her in the emergency room.
I spoke other words to God at that time as well. They certainly did not fall into the categories of either prayer or praise. My daughter had been named in memory of my uncle, who had been the chief Jewish doctor in charge of Blizien, a concentration camp, and then Auschwitz. I know that he had addressed similar remarks to God at that time, in response to what he was witnessing. And yet, like my uncle, after my anger was sufficiently expressed, I returned to my illimitable prayers.
Thankfully, our daughter eventually made a full recovery. Was it thanks to God? Did my prayers help? I’ll never know. There were many, more devout than I, who also prayed on her behalf.
This I do know; the prayers helped me. Ever since then, I still try to focus on one person as I pray. It might be a different person for each prayer, or it might not. If they are in synagogue with me, and in my sightline, I will look at them. Yes, even if they’re in the women’s section.
All writers understand that, in order to make their audience care about their character, they must first convince their audience that their character cares. Whether their character is Captain Ahab, Captain Bligh or Captain Queeg, Joe Black, James Bond or Jason Bourne, the audience must sense the character’s passion.
In theory, the High Holy Days services should be spellbinding. After all, in the words of Samuel Johnson: “Nothing concentrates the mind so wonderfully as being at the end of a rope.” In theory, our participation in these services literally determines who shall live and who shall die. Our hours in synagogue are precious, both figuratively and literally. In theory, we should care about them more than about any other period of time the year.
In practice, we don’t. We come late; we take breaks. We schmooze; we doze. Depending on our denomination, we catch up on the news either technologically or interpersonally. We frequently look at our watches, or at how many pages in the Machzor are left. We can’t wait for the service to end.
To compensate, recently, some contemporary services have become more innovative. They have added music and narrative, drama and dance to help the audience find meaning, to move the audience to care.
For those of us who feel more comfortable in traditional services, how can we, as individuals, find meaning? What will make us care?
One year, during the High Holy Days service, our rabbi passed out. He had to be removed by medical personnel. I spent the rest of the service focused on him. I suspect I was not the only one.
“This time, it’s personal!” is often used as a tagline to promote a new drama, or an old athletic rivalry. Why can’t we use it to motivate ourselves during services on Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur? Would it really be sacrilegious, if, in our minds, we were asking God to help someone, while simultaneously, our mouths were obligatorily reciting the verses praising Him? Do you imagine that He would be offended if we privately inserted the prayers for long life and healing the sick as often as we felt the need to?
I’ve spoken to Him many times; in His own way, I believe that He’s spoken back to me.
I believe that He likes it personal.
Dr. Isaac Herschkopf, president of the NYU Bellevue Psychiatric Alumni, is a practicing psychiatrist and a frequent contributor to these pages.
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