Say what you will, but I prefer the Rosh HaShanah children's service to the adult one. It's a little under an hour, and it's lighter on the lengthy recitations of the full evening service. There's a lot of singing, the cantor plays guitar, and if your mind wanders from the core service, there are little thought exercises in the margin of the prayer book to keep you engaged: "Recall a time when something went wrong and then went right..."; "Remember a time when you felt that you were doing exactly what God wanted you to do."
These are interesting questions – for me, more interesting and thought-provoking than the recitation of all the ways people will die in the coming year. (I know the point is that we can temper God's judgment through our righteousness, but I get a little hung up on whether it would be worse to die of thirst, to drown, or to be gored by a wild beast. I think maybe thirst. Anyway, it's distracting.) Throughout the family service, I feel connected: We do enough of the traditional Hebrew prayers and hymns that it feels calmingly familiar, but the material is less dogmatic, more designed for minds that have not yet been indoctrinated. Maybe, after all these years, I am still there: wrestling, unpersuaded, cynical.
For someone who attends services as infrequently as I do, the High Holidays are not only a time of personal reckoning but also a fidgety re-visitation of why I continue to include myself in organized religion at all. There is so much in the liturgy that I have to gloss over to feel that the service is right for me. Would it be better to craft my own relationship with the Divine, to chart a path that fits my belief system and maybe doesn't have its core weekly ritual on date night?
I wrestle with this every year, and so far, every year, I've renewed our synagogue membership. Why? Because my personal faith might get too busy or too lazy to carve out an annual journey of reflection and renewal, and I cherish it. Because the unity of so many voices reciting words of reverence lifts me up – even if every one of us is struggling with our relationship to them. Because the simple act of rising up onto my tiptoes as I recite "Kadosh, kadosh, kadosh" inexplicably rouses in me a more beautiful mind/body connection than any yoga posture. Because in between the verses I find hard to take are gems that go straight to my heart, that make me murmur “Amen” under my breath because there is no other word for how true they feel. Because, although I don't see anyone else doing it, no one seems to mind that I bring my journal to services so that when the liturgy loses me, I can write down my own meditations and things from the prayer book that I like. Because I love to sing loudly without being able to hear the cracks in my voice. Because there is something comforting in the observance of rituals so ancient, amidst a community whose values are so modern.
Most of us as parents have had to answer the question, "Do you believe in God?" If only it were a yes or no answer. As we enter into this time of t'shuvah, of repentance, I ask myself again: Do I believe? What do I believe? What is drawing me?
Not long ago, a friend was talking about her relationship with her boyfriend – how much she cherished it because he loved and accepted her exactly how she is. That's important, I thought, but for me, it’s not enough. I want to feel inspired, not just loved. I appreciate in my partner the things that make me want to be a better person, as well as those that make me feel good about who I am today.
In a simplistic sense, I wish for the same from my relationship with God: the love reassuring me that I am enough, and the inspiration reassuring me that I can be more. They are not incompatible.
In the words and meditations of Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur, I find both the love and the inspiration.
As Jews gather in congregations around the world this time of year, I'm heartened by the inherent optimism in our ritual: We messed up last year, but we're definitely going to do better this year. We affirm this, even knowing that we will be back next year, at the same time, to do it all over again. We set our intention and detach from the outcome. The detachment doesn't weaken the fervor of the intent. This optimism is so crucial to our survival. Without it, the news of the world would crush our spirit, and we would fade away.
To all those who are wrapping themselves in this time of reflection, introspection, and connection, I wish you a very happy and sweet new year.