Taking a Closer Look at the Words That Move Me on Rosh HaShanah

September 19, 2017Howard Lev

While my synagogue has switched to Mishkan T'filah, the Reform siddur (prayer book) used during weekdays, Shabbat, and festivals, we’ve yet to begin using Mishkan HaNefesh, the new Reform machzor (High Holiday prayer book).

On Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur, we use an older version of the machzor titled Gates of Repentance, which includes gendered language such as Lord and “He” (when referencing God). This year, our congregational clergy made a concerted effort to locate as many gender-neutral versions of Gates of Repentance as possible, with the goal of collecting more than 1,000 machzorim (the plural of prayer books) for our synagogue.

In the past, our clergy changed their wording on the High Holidays to be more inclusive and gender-neutral even though the machzorim were not. I have to admit, though, that for awhile, I did not realize there were two versions of the machzor, as I’ve always preferred to listen to the prayers rather than to read them

This year, though, will be different.

This year, I was given the honor of being asked to read the Haftarah on the second day of Rosh HaShanah, Isaiah 55.6-13. My wife Lauren was asked to recite the blessings before and after the Haftarah. We opted to read them in English.

As I practiced my Haftarah, the words flowed, but I didn't feel the emotion I'd hoped it would evoke. The lack of emotion had nothing to do with “Eternal One” replacing “Lord," but perhaps it had everything to do with my not yet understanding the portion. So I took the time to try to understand the meaning of the words. 

I discovered that this portion of Isaiah is, in my opinion, about our relationships with God: what is expected of us, how we should achieve forgiveness, how we know if God is satisfied. We are told:

“Seek the Eternal One while there is still time; call out while God is near.  Let the wicked forsake their ways, and the sinful their thoughts.  Let them return to the Eternal One, who will show them compassion; to our God, who is quick to forgive.”

So if I toss bread into the water at Tashlich, attend High Holidays services, and recite the prayers, is that good enough for God? Is that good enough for me?

The answer to both is a resounding no.

At first read, God comes across as egotistical. The following is a list of God’s accomplishments; the words “My,” “Me,” and “Mine” are all referring to God.

“For My thoughts are not like yours nor are your ways like Mine…”  “For high as the heavens above the earth, so are My ways high above your ways and My thoughts above your thoughts...”

After reading the portion a few times and breaking it down into sections – even examining them out of order – I realized that this passage isn’t about ego after all.

We know who God is. I see this as a challenge from God to strive for more. Not to settle. Although we are created in God’s image, we can’t be exactly like God, and God knows that. While we can’t think like God, we do have thoughts – and just as God did, we have to put our thoughts to good use.

So what should I do?

This passage also taught me that I need to try harder – that I need to be more patient, more understanding, and more compassionate. This passage asks what we should do to assist God in tikkun olam, the repair of our broken world, compelling us not stand idly by when injustices occur.

And it isn’t just about asking for forgiveness. We need to support God in our ways and thoughts, even if we never match the work of God. We have the ability to please God. We need God as much as God needs us.

In the final passage, God shows us the reward for the work done:

“…Just as rain and snow come down from the sky without returning, but water the earth, making it blossom and bear fruit, yielding seed for sowing and bread to eat...”  “…For you shall go out in joy; you shall be led forth in peace. Before your mountains and hills shall break out in joyous song, and all the tress of the field shall clap their hands. Cypress shall grow instead of thorn-bushes, myrtle instead of briar. These shall be a monument to God, an everlasting sign that will stand firm.”

How will I measure my work? Well, I don’t require anything as symbolic as seeing cypress or myrtle. I prefer to remain in the background, watching whatever project I’ve worked on succeed, and knowing I gave it my best – as I go onto the next challenge and try my best again.

What has your Rosh HaShanah self-reflection taught you?

Shanah tovah, a sweet new year.

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