So here we are again. The summer holidays are rapidly receding from memory and suddenly we are on the cusp of a New Year. I love and hate this time of the year, the Jewish New Year with its services and rituals and expectations and demands.
On one level it is all very familiar : the words of the liturgy, the music, the motifs, the heavy language of sin and judgment, guilt and forgiveness, it doesn’t change, year after year it challenges and provokes and I fight it and then submit to it, wrestle meaning out of it then avoid the meaning within it, I defy it and judge it then acknowledge its power, I question it, reject it, search it, listen in to it, turn it this way then that, while I am turned this way and that, turned and returned. Return – ‘Teshuvah’ – all this love and hate, probing and being probed, is – I suppose – what it is all about, returning to the hard truths and hard questions about my life, our life, our lives.
So it is familiar, yes, but also each year there’s the shock of encountering again a religious world that is so unfamiliar, so distant from our daily lives: a world that believes that these things truly matter. That how he live, what we do, what we fail to do – all the tiny decisions of our everyday lives and the larger choices we make, thoughtfully or carelessly, that they all count, and that they all matter not just for us but in a larger scheme of things. It can be a shock to hear again these traditional words and the belief system they contain. We are drawn in – but maybe a part of us always wants to flee from it, as just too strange, or too demanding, or too guilt-inducing...
Because in our hearts we aren’t sure that we really believe in all this anymore – that the world is ordered and governed as the traditional liturgy says it is. We might intuit that some of these things do matter, we may have an inkling that that there are truths buried deep inside these traditional words, but we aren’t sure any more. We may not know what we believe, what we really think and feel, about God and mercy and repentance and forgiveness of sins. We know that life is more complex, and more random, than the sometimes simple pieties we hear about in the pages of this book, as wondrous as I think this book is, our Reform High Holy Day machzor.
But we still come - with our uncertainties, our doubts, our questions - because we also know that if we engage in this stuff something happens to us, in us – that some combination of the music and liturgy and the experience of community and the words the congregation exchanges with each other before or after the service, and even the words you hear from the rabbi (maybe), all these strands come together and we know that something about engaging in this annual journey does make a difference. Though we might be hard pressed to say what.
If these Ten Days do make a difference, maybe it is because during them we are – whether we want it or not – engaging with what is real in life, and a lot of the time during the year we might find ourselves running away from what is real. The High Holy Days asks us to spend time with what is really happening in our own lives – and that can be a scary thing to do. It is there right at the beginning of the preparatory Selichot our service: ‘Help me...to be at one with myself, so that these precious days are not lost in pretence and self-deception. Give me the strength...to know myself as I am, a human being, sinned against and sinning...’ (p95). Self-deception is ingrained in human nature – that’s part of what it means to have an unconscious – and one of the manifestations of self-deception is that moment we all experience when we imagine that we don’t deceive ourselves.
What can be frightening about this time – and why so many Jews can no longer bear it, want to avoid it, or want to treat it dismissively – is that these High Holy Days expose us. We can’t escape the fact that we are asked to think about our lives, our successes and our failures, our creativity and our crookedness. These services can make us feel very vulnerable: because when we think about our lives we are aware of what goes well, yes, we are aware of our blessings – children, grandchildren, friendship, satisfying work, activities we enjoy, achievements – but we also become aware, maybe even more aware, of what might not be right in our lives: problems with our health, illness, the frailty of our bodies, problems about money, savings, how to pay the mortgage, anxieties about work or job security; we may become aware of the losses we suffer, friends who die, the death of parents, or a spouse; we may be experiencing loneliness, or the breakdown of a relationship, or the fragility of our emotional lives or insecurities in our mental state.
We may feel our lives are lacking in something – even if we don’t know what it is. We may feel that life is passing us by too quickly. We may be very frightened deep down, about dying alone, or dying in pain, we may be frightened about anti-Semitism, or the future of Israel as a democratic state we can be proud of, and as we read about 100 square mile chunks of ice breaking off the Greenland ice mass we may be frightened about the planet itself dying. Our fears may be focused on us, or out there. But you can’t go through these High Holy Days without at some moment or another – and maybe for longer – becoming aware of personal fears and insecurities, as well as collective ones. That’s why I say it can be scary to engage with – because these things are real – and the liturgy keeps bringing us back to what is real : ‘Help me...to be at one with myself, so that these precious days are not lost in pretence and self-deception’.
Now of course it is possible to go through these days untouched by any of this – the paradox of the liturgy is that it can block access to what is real just as effectively as it can open us up to what is real. Although strictly speaking it isn’t the liturgy that blocks us, or prevents us going deeper, but something inside of us. Because you can say all the words and sing all the melodies and use them as a quite effective barrier against the reality of your life: you can perform them, like a ritual, and keep their essence far away from your heart and soul – or you can whisper them in awe and trembling, listen in to them, pay attention to where they are pointing, the reality of your own life, your unique and fragile and precious life.
But the promise embedded in the liturgy is that if you do allow yourself to be vulnerable and open to where the words lead you – the promise is that it is safe to do this. Our services are places where it is possible to be vulnerable safely – because they offer that private space, in the midst of the community. You are not alone in struggling with what is real, you are not alone as you reflect on what works in your life, and what doesn’t, you are not alone as you reflect on your values and the decisions you make. We are all in this together, even though we are each in it in our own way. But the value of community is that we are supporting each other in these personal journeys that the person sitting next to you might know nothing about, your family may know nothing about. We are not alone – even though it might often feel that we are.
And we are not alone not only because we are all in this together – but because the promise of these days is that if we do listen in to the words and we do follow where they are pointing there is a presence with us on the journey, that we are being held like a baby in the womb that has no knowledge of itself being held, that we are being held in what our tradition calls, rachamim: divine mercy. The Hebrew word for mercy, compassion, is - I’m sure you know - from the word rechem, womb. And it is one of the names for God.
And part of our work during these Ten Days is to listen in to this rachamim within us, this divine quality of care and acceptance and holding that says:
‘Yes, you fail to live up to what you know is best and you know is right; yes, you have done things that are wrong; yes, you compromise and you cheat (yourself and others), yes, you turn away from truth – but in spite of all this you are not alone, you have not been abandoned, because I who am rachamim live in you - in your capacity to have compassion on yourself. Don’t berate yourself for your failures; don’t hate yourself for your pathetic inability to live lives congruent with the values you give lip-service to, don’t hate yourself for what you do wrong. Have compassion for yourself – you are just another weak, struggling human being, trying to find the way in a confusing world. Find compassion for your suffering – because you do suffer. Find your compassion. Find Ha-Rachaman, the One who is Compassion. Find your compassion during these days – I give you ten days – you will find it, you will find Me. Find your compassion and you find Me.’
That is the promise of these days. And the work – and it is work - begins this week.
I wish you all a Shana Tova – a good New Year – and much strength for the journey ahead.
[Based on a text delivered at Finchley Reform Synagogue on Saturday night, September 4th]