Turning Rosh Hashanah Into an Opportunity

August 29, 2022Rabbi Austin Zoot

Rosh HaShanahRosh HaShanahLiterally, “head of the year;” the start of the new year on the Jewish calendar. and Yom KippurYom Kippurיוֹם כִּפּוּר"Day of Atonement;" holiest day of the Jewish year, which includes a focus on prayer, repentance and fasting. worship services are among the most attended services of the year. That can be a challenge when the worship experiences are not the easiest entry points to Judaism, especially compared to the joyousness of Simchat TorahSimchat Torahשִׂמְחַת תּוֹרָה "Rejoicing in the Law;" holiday that celebrates the completion (and then the beginning) of the annual reading of the Torah. , the food and rituals of HanukkahHanukkahחֲנֻכָּה"Dedication;" the joyous eight-day celebration during which Jews commemorate the victory of the Macabees over the armies of Syria in 165 B.C.E. and the subsequent liberation and rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem. , or the sensory stimulation of PassoverPassoverPassover (Pesach in Hebrew) is a major Jewish spring festival celebrating freedom and family as we remember the Exodus from Egypt more than 3,000 years ago. .

At a time when more attention is being paid to religious acceptance in the workplace, flexible time off structures, and increased awareness of self-care practices, more and more young Jews are opting not to take time off from work on the High HolidaysHigh Holidaysיָמִים נוֹרָאִיםRosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur . Instead, they might stream services from their desks or forgo them altogether. When taking time for communal worship is arguably easier than ever, why is taking the day off to celebrate the Jewish new year so out of vogue?

One explanation may lie in the perception of many younger Jews that communal prayer is an obligation, rather than an opportunity. This perception can be a real barrier to a meaningful holiday experience.

As a millennial rabbi, I find myself with a foot in each world. I have a deep appreciation for our tradition. The declaration of faith contained in Avinu Malkeinu Avinu Malkeinuאָבִינוּ מַלְכֵּנוּ "Our Father, Our King"/"Our Parent, Our Ruler" A prayer (and song) chanted during the High Holiday period. Describes two simultaneous ways in which people might relate to God: the intimate relationship of a parent and the powerful awe of a ruler. is incredibly powerful in a world we can't control. The Torah portion we read on Rosh HaShanah, the AkeidahAkeidahעֲקֵדָה"Binding." The story in Genesis of the near-sacrifice of Isaac, Abraham’s son, which is read on Rosh HaShanah. (the binding of Isaac), brings new ideas and perspectives with each annual reading. The melody and theme of forgiveness that Kol Nidrei Kol Nidreכָּל נִדְרֵי"All Vows;" prayer recited on the eve of Yom Kippur, the holiest day on the Jewish calendar; inspires is soul-rending. So many prayers perfectly encapsulate the experience of being human. Assuming, that is, that joining in communal worship experiences were reframed as a gift for the worshipper, rather than as a duty.

I also understand the layers of baggage that many bring to their own experience of prayer. For many of my millennial contemporaries, the High Holidays evoke memories of long sermons, extended liturgies, uncomfortable clothes, and guilt trips about why they don't attend more often. I can say with confidence that this is a divide that clergy across North America are working tirelessly to bridge.

There are more unique expressions of prayer on a Rosh HaShanah morning than we could possibly have imagined a generation ago, with thought and intention given to how to best meet the complicated needs of modern individuals. Communities offer a variety of services, ranging from traditional choral arrangements to new age musical creativity. Congregations are trying new venues, new structures. The Reform Movement has updated the prayerbook to better offer a diversity of voices. For those who were put off by services in the past, it might be time to make your way back and experience the changes made with you in mind.

Moreover, the work of finding spiritual renewal is not something contained only in a synagogue. Most Reform communities offer Rosh HaShanah services that last, at most, two hours. That leaves the rest of the day for customized spiritual growth. Each of us might encounter this differently: some journal, some meditate, some go for long walks.

We might think of the words and melodies of our communal prayer as an on-ramp to the words that we keep sequestered in our hearts, coaxing them out with other like-minded individuals working on their own growth. The words of the prayer book are not where prayer ends, but the key that opens the door to our own sense of God and understanding of self. Prayer isn't something we can check off on our to-do lists. When we put on streaming services in the background of our workday, we are making it nearly impossible for the centuries of shared wisdom of Judaism to add any value to our already busy lives.

There are many reasons to engage with the rituals of the High Holidays. It is a time for spiritual contemplation, to step back and breathe in the tumult of life. It is a time to make memories with our loved ones and deepen our interpersonal ties. It is a time when we embrace the depth of our tradition and see how the world of the ancient can speak to the needs of the modern. These days can feel fraught when we attend synagogue to fulfill someone else's needs. This year, think deeply about what YOU need. Take the days to serve yourself well, whatever that might look like.

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