What’s so high about the High Holy Days?
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It’s true. Shul leaders work hard during Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. And so this piece might come across as one stressed-out rabbi’s plea for sanity. But I really do think we all have to calm down about the High Holidays. Honestly, I have no idea what makes them so “high.”
Yes, the world is reborn on Rosh Hashanah and each of us is forgiven on Yom Kippur. The meanings of these holidays are profound, but there is so much missing if these days are our considered our “highest.”
A full Jewish life is impossible when it is limited to the universalism of Rosh Hashanah and the forgiving power of Yom Kippur. We’d certainly be much less without them, but we’re fractions of our Jewish selves if they’re all we’ve got.
Before I go on, let me be clear about the possibilities of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur in contemporary synagogue life: These are our best chances to prove we are the welcoming communities we claim to be. For many participants in High Holiday services, especially those who do not connect to synagogues any other time of the year, this is it. This is a Jewish “booster shot” that, while pale in comparison to a textured Jewish identity, touches the nostalgia of countless Jews around the world.
Three days a year — two for Rosh Hashanah and one for Yom Kippur — we are a holier people because we are a “whole-er” people. We dare not miss our chance. The greeters at the door are at least as important as service leaders. Most people don’t mind if a prayer is mispronounced or a sermon goes a little too long (a rabbi’s allowed to dream...), but if the person at the door doesn’t communicate a joyful welcome, the whole experience will probably fail to inspire. So, despite hoping that we’ll choose to raise other Jewish moments to higher prominence in Jews’ lives, I do believe these days matter in our current configuration.
That being said, here’s the most sacred thing we don’t have when our primary Jewish communal experience is the High Holidays: Space.
So many people show up on the “hiho’s” that there’s barely room to turn. Just imagine if the crowds weren’t there and you showed up to be inspired. And that’s the key: “inspired” comes from the word that means “able to breathe.” Breathing is a good thing, a holy thing. When the Torah says that God “rested” on the seventh day, it uses the word “vaYinafash” — God’s soul was restored. The blessing of these days is only truly present when the re-souling continues beyond three days where we hold our breath to make room for each other. If you’re a Yom Kippur Jew, check out Shabbos. It’s roomy.
Also, shul regulars often grouse that “their” synagogue is annually “invaded” by throngs of strangers. It’s similar to family celebrations: We don’t really get the chance to connect intensely with any one relative because they’re all there at the same time. My request of shul regulars: Imagine, on these intense days, that no one is a stranger. Imagine the home our synagogues could be. If we year-round shul-folk can manage to push away some of the stress of the moment and extend some radical welcome to less familiar faces, we just might have some more fun this Yom Kippur. And we might get together more often. Who knows? Share some love. It’s family time.
It is my belief that the stress Jews and their families feel when we try to pack it all into three holy days calls for some healing. Let’s realize that Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are the Jewish people’s biggest annual family reunion. It’s going to be a tight fit. And it’s glorious to be together. Stressful and glorious.
In a few weeks, once the world is reborn and we’re forgiven, let’s do some dreaming about the year to come. Jewish joy and spiritual intimacy are possible in the upcoming holy days — and every day.
Rabbi Menachem Creditor is the spiritual leader of Congregation Netivot Shalom in Berkeley.
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