By the time you read this, our big run of fall Jewish High Holidays will be over. However, I’m still gathering up bits and pieces about it. What did I experience? What worked out and what didn’t? This isn’t a yes or no question, it’s complex. It takes time to process the intensity of what I learned.
Like many parents with kids, I don’t attend a full complement of adult religious services. Even if I didn’t have younger children, we’d still have to find dress clothes for everyone and make sure holiday meals are ready, never mind actually working for a living. Every fall is a juggling act. Will it work out smoothly? Sometimes it is good planning. Sometimes, it’s luck.
This year, I managed to access several sermons, done by various rabbis I know and respect. Some were published to the internet on the day after the holiday. Others were live-streamed.
Via the internet, I read the Rosh Hashanah sermons of a Long Island rabbi with whom I have studied and become friendly over the past year or two. Rabbi Susan Elkodsi shared several of her sermons as blog posts after the holiday. One sermon covered the confluence of 9/11 with the High Holidays. The other talked about how we connect with our ancestors over the New Year period, and how the “who will live and who will die” metaphor becomes alive for many.
For me, both of these topics struck home. My family in New York City and in D.C. lived through 9/11. Also, every time I sing the holiday Kiddush, it is as though I hear my grandfather, z”l, singing it. He sang it at my family’s holiday table, and he taught me to do it as a young adult. On erev Rosh Hashanah this year, I could hear his voice in my ear, although he died long ago. Thanks to those sermons, I have some Jewish historic context for two strong emotional memories.
Elkodsi’s next blog post covered a “water-optional” version of Tashlich, when people gather to throw their sins or breadcrumbs into the water. She described how Tashlich might be the time to clean up or discard the things that are holding us back or for which we can no longer find a use. In a sense, it’s a “KonMari” cleaning method for our lives. This, too, found resonance with me. I used it as unconscious encouragement – my kids and I cleaned up their art shelf, play room and living room toys before Yom Kippur. This mess weighed me down. Together, we cast it off to have a better start to 5779.
This year, even though we didn’t travel there, we heard Kol Nidre, sung in Virginia, and saw my father, as a past president, holding a Torah on the pulpit of my family’s congregation. How did we pull that off?
On erev Yom Kippur, my kids got into their pajamas. We read stories and got ready for bed. At exactly 7:30 p.m. CT, we started live-streaming the Temple Rodef Shalom Kol Nidre late service. My kids worried that the Torah was too heavy for their grandfather. (I did, too.) Later, my mom told me that past presidents on either side of my dad were spotting for him, and that my dad also recognized that this would probably be the last year he could do this. Torahs are heavy. Nobody wants to drop one. We felt the power of connecting with family, seeing my father do a mitzvah, and something difficult, at a big holiday service.
My kids made it until about 8:15, staying up through the Kol Nidre prayer and the first part of the service before they fell asleep. Using headphones, I listened to the rest of the service until, for some reason, I couldn’t access the live-streaming anymore. By then, I’d heard about how we should see teshuvah (repentance) through the eyes of a failing U.S. criminal justice system. It’s hard to balance the needs of victims, cope with crime and also give people who’ve made mistakes a second chance. Rabbi Jeffrey Saxe, a victim of violent crime, gave the sermon. He explained his social action efforts to advocate for reform with an interfaith clergy group that meets with Virginia’s governor.
I’m mentioning the positive things I can fit in one column. Sometimes accessing diverse voices, from every movement, with different Jewish experiences, enriches our observance. There’s no way my body could have been in synagogue in Manitoba, New York and Virginia. The traveling would have been torture, never mind the cost! However, my mind traveled. This helped me think about new things for 5779.
Some say that the High Holidays are the most important days of the Jewish year, but I’d argue that they are the most intense. Shabbat every week is important. All the other holidays have value, too. The thing about rituals, traditions and observance is that they don’t have an on/off switch. If we shift ourselves just a little, attend a different Jewish service, listen to a new sermon or approach things differently, we can have a startlingly new experience.
Most people attend one congregation all the time, hear one or two rabbis’ sermons and rarely see something new. It’s a lot of effort to break routines. Change is hard. However, every day is an opportunity to look up and find new things in our Jewish landscape. Sometimes, a slight shift in how we see our rituals (dog walks, meditations, synagogue services) can change the way we see the whole world. It’s going to take me time to sort through what I learned and what changed. I hope you, too, can take that time to gain something new, to learn something about the Jewish world, through this kind of exploration.
Joanne Seiff writes regularly for CBC Manitoba and various Jewish publications. She is the author of three books, including From the Outside In: Jewish Post Columns 2015-2016, a collection of essays available for digital download or as a paperback from Amazon. See more about her at joanneseiff.blogspot.com.