Hosea 14:2-10; Micah 7:18-20; Joel 2:15-27
The Shabbat between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur has a special place in Jewish tradition. Shabbat Shuvah, the Shabbat of Returning, falls during Aseret Yemei Teshuvah, the 10 days between the two mega-holidays.
After Rosh Hashanah, when pews swell again on Yom Kippur, people from all walks of life enter synagogues again to join a community of prayer. We come to shul — and don’t come to shul — for many reasons. Some come because it’s the Jewish thing to do. Some come for the music. Some come to connect with other Jews. Some come to honor parents, some in order to enjoy the meals before or after services. Some come to model for their children. Some come to hear the rabbi.
All of these are good reasons to come to shul on the High Holy Days. Synagogue should be a portal to many different spiritual and cultural experiences — thank God there are multiple reasons why people come. But on this Shabbat Shuvah, why should you come to shul? Isn’t it enough on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur?
Well, the rabbis tell us — not exactly. That’s why they include Psalm 27 in our daily liturgy throughout Elul, the month that precedes Rosh Hashanah. This beautiful psalm continues to be included in the service through Sukkot.
In verse 4 of Psalm 27, we read: “One thing I ask of Adonai, this I seek, that I will dwell in the house of Adonai all the days of my life, that I will see the beauty of God and that I will visit his sanctuary.”
The Psalmist claims to be asking one thing of God, but there are three asks: to dwell in God’s house all the days of his life, to see the beauty of God and to visit God’s sanctuary.
Dwelling in God’s house means being familiar with God’s house. When we visit the home of an acquaintance, we might hesitate to open up the refrigerator and help ourselves. We may hesitate to put our feet on the coffee table. But in the house of a close friend, we do it. We don’t need to ask permission for everything we do. To dwell in God’s house means being there, time and time again — being comfortable because it’s familiar.
Seeing the beauty of God means taking the time to take note of the incredible miracles in our world. Abraham Joshua Heschel, the great 20th-century Jewish theologian, reminds us that [humankind] “will not perish for want of information; but only for want of appreciation. … What we lack is not a will to believe, but a will to wonder.” Come to synagogue to name the radical amazement of which Heschel spoke, to give thanks.
And yet, Rabbi Elliot Dorff is fond of reminding us, prayer is like baseball: “Even the most gifted must practice. … For the vast majority of us, praying well demands the time and effort of extended preparation — just as deft baseball playing does — but, with that, both can be effectively done by almost everyone.”
Rabbi Dorff describes different prayer experiences with analogies to a base hit, a double, a triple and yes, even a home run. His analogy reminds us that prayer is a discipline, but it will help to ensure that these moments of wonder do not pass us by.
What does it mean to enter the sanctuary of God? If we are already in God’s house, how can we enter? The High Holy Day prayerbook reminds us: God knows the mysteries of the universe and the hidden secrets of all the living. We don’t know what lies beyond this world. We don’t know how our prayers affect what we don’t know. We pray to enter God’s sanctuary, God’s most intimate chamber, without fully understanding what exactly that means. It is a tremendous leap of faith.
Psalm 27 offers us a reason to come to shul on Shabbat Shuvah. It tells us to come and come often. It tells us that God wants us to be familiar with God’s house. And we know we need to give thanks, to stop and recognize our blessings. And Judaism tells us that there is power in doing this as a community. If we are going to really benefit from any spiritual practice then it is a good idea to frequent the practice. The time is now, during the powerful 10 days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. What are you waiting for?
Rabbi Susan Leider is the senior rabbi at Congregation Kol Shofar in Tiburon. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.