For Jews around the world, this is the month of Elul. It is the month preceding the holiest days in the Jewish calendar: Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. During the month of Elul, Jews begin to prepare for these days, which are intended as a time of introspection–assess how we’ve done during the year in our relationships with each other, with God, and ourselves–and resolve to do better.
During this month, it is Jewish tradition hear the blast of the shofar (ram’s horn) each morning–a sort of “wake up call”–a reminder to be begin the self-reflection. A warm up to the main event of the marathon of the High Holy Days.
For many, the holidays are also a time for family get togethers complete with chicken soup, brisket, and sweet foods that signify the start to a sweet new year: apples dipped in honey, honey cakes–and just plain honey!
But it’s also the time where many Jews spend more time in synagogue than at any other time of the year. Whether it’s family tradition or a sense of obligation, or a desire to start anew, people come in droves, filling the seats, making small congregations large; rendering large congregations, gigantic—with thousands in attendance.
Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur overflow with (often daunting) ritual, rules and regulations, pomp and ceremony. Making matters worse, during sometimes very long, formal worship services, you may be relegated to seats far away from the action on the bima, distanced not only physically, but also spiritually.
Perhaps you only know a little (or no) Hebrew. Indeed, these “Days of Awe” as they are called can be more “overwhelming” than “awe” for so many of us “people of the book.” So I’d like to offer a couple of ways to help you perhaps find a bit more meaning as you “sit in shul” through these holiest of holidays in the Jewish calendar.
There is a story of great Jewish wisdom told in many different ways. One version is called “The Boy with the Flute,” and teaches us that it doesn’t matter whether you know one word of Hebrew or the entire lexicon. It is the intention that counts. You needn’t pray in Hebrew, even if that’s all you seem to hear in synagogue during the High Holy Days. Consider these suggestions, or simply use the time in temple as a “time out” to recount the year just past: the good, the bad, the stuff that just needs a tweak or two—or a complete system reboot. And then contemplate on how to make the necessary changes, and to right any wrongs you may have committed.
The special prayer book, called the Machzor, has page after page of Hebrew that only a few can understand well enough to make meaningful in itself, and often the translations are archaic, formal, and poetic, making it difficult to relate to the text. How do you make sense of it? How do you find meaning in the long hours of listening and trying to follow along? My response? Don’t. Don’t try to follow word-by-word, page-by-page.
Close your eyes and simply listen.
The melodies of the High Holy Days are evocative and are meant to propel you into the spirit: introspective and inward-looking, acknowledging our failings, our resolve to be better people, the joy of the new year and of renewal. The service is a symphony with motives that flow from mood to mood, image to image. Moments of congregational cacophony, moments of being absorbed by the entire gathering singing in one voice, and others where it is in the stillness of a recitative, the cantor carrying you on the wings of a single note; the crescendo of the shofar’s blast. So, close your eyes. Let yourself be carried by the sounds that surround you looking inward and forward into the New Year.
Read the prayers in English
Read the prayers in English (although they are sometimes just as elusive as the Hebrew), but try to consider why they’re there. What does it mean to you when you see the words: “The great shofar is sounded and a still, small voice is heard?” What do the words “May we be written into the ‘Book of Life’” signify to you? How can you internalize the moral confessions of the “Al Chet” (literally, “all sins”), chanted over and over throughout Yom Kippur? “For the sin we have sinned by using our mouths?” “For the sins we have sinned both knowingly and unknowingly?” The words are incredibly powerful, and sometimes lost to the rote chanting in the original Hebrew. Stop. Look. Read. Listen.
Find the joy of the High Holy Days by singing along—and reading along. Between the long passages of listening to cantor and choir, there are those wonderful punctuation marks in the service: congregational refrains and hymns. Catchy melodies, infectious tunes, whether you understand the words or not, they’re melodies you’ve heard since you were a child and seem never to let go.
Let go and sing along, even if you get the words wrong (or don’t know them at all). This is your part of the service—to sing, to help lift the entire congregation (and the people up on the bima) higher and higher. There are few things more inspiring than the unison voice of 1,000 people chanting “Shema Yisrael, Adonai Eloheinu! Adonai echad!” (Listen, Israel! Adonai is our God, Adonai is One!) or pleading, “Avinu Malkeinu, chaneinu v’aneinu. Asei imanu tzedakah va’chesed!”!” “God, our Parent, our Ruler (our Father, our King in the Hebrew) be gracious to us; answer us! Treat us with righteousness and kindness!” Who wouldn’t be awed? Who could not be inspired?
There are also undoubtedly going to be responsive reading interludes. Read them with drama, and with comprehension, listening to 1,000 voices speak them to God and to you. The words are powerful, but only if not recited by rote, but with emotion and meaning. If you happen upon one that really speaks to you, hold on to it and go back to it later (maybe when you’re bored) to read it more closely, contemplating it deeply.
Kid’s Service Are not (Necessarily) Only for Kids
If all else fails and you find yourself restless and distracted, I suggest checking out your synagogue’s kids’ services. So what if you don’t have a child with you? (Either borrow someone else’s kid or tell the leader you want to help out!) Sometimes children’s and family services are more engaging, far more intimate, and much less intimidating than what’s going on in the main show. If nothing else does it for you, the kids’ enthusiasm (and perhaps the leader’s too) surely will.
Author’s Note: In addition to being a novelist and the executive editor of Blogcritics, Barbara Barnett is a Cantor (Hazzan) and member of the Cantors Assembly, an organization of professional cantors affiliated with the Conservative movement within Judaism.