By Sam Glaser
I’d like to thank my friend and mentor Rabbi Simcha Weinberg for the inspiration for this newsletter.
My favorite comic of the season is Bart Simpson at the blackboard scrawling, “I won’t count how many pages are left in the Machzor.” Formal prayer is an acquired taste, and its acquisition is best achieved with frequent prayer. This theological Catch 22 is exacerbated by the fact that many of my fellow Jews only show up to pray on the two days a year when the prayers are by far the most long winded, confusing and complicated. I have a theory that the intensity and importance of the High Holiday liturgy requires that the chazzan keep the congregation engaged in participatory melody, and the rabbi uses his teaching moments primarily to answer the elephant in the room question: “Why are we here?”
Thankfully I came armed this year with several powerful divrei Torah on this very subject to share with my sweet congregation in Virginia Beach, VA. During Elul, the last month in our Jewish calendar year, I dive into the Machzor (holiday prayer book) out of necessity. As cantor I feel that it is important to run the High Holiday services several times in their entirety so that I am fluid on the melodies and liturgy and can focus on deeper meanings. In order to give words of illumination when I give a sermon, I spend the month steeped in holy books, holy websites and sitting eagerly in the front row when various Torah luminaries grace my shtetl in Los Angeles teaching holiday preparation workshops.
The net effect of this preparation is much like the difference between rushing through an art museum versus taking a comprehensive tour with a knowledgeable docent. It’s great to just show up and see some paintings, but the effect of deep preparation and a powerful guide creates a completely different experience. I realize that if I weren’t leading the holidays in a professional capacity I would not put in the time. But because I do make an effort, I can see how making that effort in other areas of my life would make a profound difference.
I’d like to offer a five part answer to the “Why are we here” question that I hope will enhance the experience of my dear readers come this Yom Kippur. The key “take home” concepts are first impressions, aspiration, desire, beauty and royalty.
First impressions: Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are truly portals to newness. We are told that “we never get a second chance to make a first impression,” but the miracle of this holiday period is that God gives us that very gift. We are judged “where we are at,” with a completely new chance to be the people we want to be. We learn from Hagar and Ishmael’s expulsion from Avraham and Sarah’s home, in the Torah portion read on the first day of Rosh Hashanah, that God judges Ishmael not for the mischief he caused with Isaac, nor for the trouble he would create for the Jewish People in future generations. Ishmael was judged where he was at the moment when he was fighting for his life, dying of thirst in the harsh desert, and God answered his prayer with a miraculous rescue. This powerful opportunity to become new again isn’t just semantics. Our cells are continuously regenerating. We know we are vastly different from the people we were ten years earlier. We know that change is possible because we HAVE changed as a result of our deepest experiences, both triumphant and traumatic.
When my wife and I were contemplating the wedding of our dreams we realized that the most profound weddings that we had attended were those few Orthodox nuptials that we had witnessed. We started learning with a favorite rabbi about the deeper meanings of all the customs and decided that while a full blown Tish, Bedeken, Kabbalat Panim and Yichud might bewilder our guests, the spiritual rewards of these traditions were worth the effort. The way it works is that the guys go to a tish where they drink, toast, sing and take care of the formal documents. The ladies greet the bride, a queen for the day seated elegantly at the Kabbalat Panim, and receive her exalted blessings. Then the guys rowdily march the groom out to see his bride, as if for the first time ever, and revel in her majesty. My rabbi suggested that we not see each other or even speak a full week before our big day. “Not even speak? Isn’t that severe? What about the last minute details? What about entertaining our out-of-town guests?” I asked in exasperation. He said, “When you first see your beloved bride, the one you have chosen out of all others in the world, you don’t want to think, “How could you have said that to me last night?”
We wisely took the rabbi’s advice. We created a most powerful first impression that will remain forever etched in our minds. Our capable photographer caught the crystalline tears as they cascaded from my eyes as I veiled my bride in a totally overwhelmed state. Our task is to conjure such a first-time meeting when we stand in the synagogue. The new you. Totally separate from the person you were before walking in the room. Just like Adam, the first man. Rosh Hashanah is commonly known as the anniversary of the creation of the world. In actuality, it is the birthday of Adam, the anniversary of the sixth day, the one that really mattered. Just like Adam stood alone in a nascent Garden of Eden, the very definition of a fresh start, so too can we on this first day of the year, and every day thereafter.
Adam’s first prayer was one of aspiration. He saw an incomplete world and according to Rashi, felt in his heart, “this could be so much more!” This is the theme that should inform all of our prayers during this High Holiday period. We’re not davening for selfish reasons; we must see a world of potential and want that potential realized. Only when Adam prayed did the rain fall and create the vast greenery of the garden. Let us all be like Adam and truly want greatness from ourselves and from our world. We live in a time of information overload. Constant news updates, constant connection. After enough bad news it’s easy to close our eyes, to ignore the world’s pain. This is the season to reawaken our aspirations, to remove complacency from our hearts, not to accept the status quo. Think big thoughts! God will hear your prayer! We could be so much more.
God gave Adam a few jobs: take care of the garden, name the animals, avoid certain trees. Adam became a Yes-man, calmly awaiting God’s next command. God quickly saw that this was not ideal (lo tov) and realized that the key to inspiring Adam to take initiative, to think outside the box and feel a sense of desire, was to give him the gift of a wife. Eve ignited his passion and cajoled him to reach his potential. We see proof of Adam’s complacency in the fact that God put him in a “deep slumber” much like God did with Abraham and Daniel. Rather than seeing the overarching prophetic visions like the other biblical heroes, Adam saw nothing during his sleep. Adam’s newfound desire with Eve was a good thing: although he ate from the forbidden tree, at least now he could be a partner with God, not just an employee. This time period, therefore, is the season for the rekindling of desire. We sing Zochreynu L’chaim in our prayers acknowledging that God is DESPERATE for us to desire life, to act as his “hands” in the world, to fill our days with purpose and beauty.
Speaking of beauty, a popular Midrash from the book of Exodus tells us that the Jewish women made mirrors of copper to use when beautifying themselves for their husbands. Most couples had given up on reproducing in the face of the crushing slavery. We were redeemed in the merit of these women who made the effort to show their exhausted husbands both of their images in the mirror. The husbands could see the beauty not only of their wives but the wives would remind their husbands that they too were beautiful in their eyes. The women rekindled their appetite and thereby ensured the future of the Jewish people. In light of their “illicit” origins, Moses was reluctant to follow the command to turn these mirrors into the kiyor, the washbasin that the cohanim (priests) would use in the Mishkan. But God insisted that the cohanim would see their reflection and be reminded just how beautiful they were to God. My friends, we are all God’s children. We are so beautiful to God, just like our own children are beautiful to us. We slide home at the end of a tough year of hard knocks and bruises to our ego. We may get dressed up in our nicest clothes and show up in style to the synagogue on the High Holidays, but inside we feel like a mess. This is the season of restoring our inner beauty, knowing that we are a treasure, one of God’s precious children.
We are so beautiful in God’s eyes that in fact that we are supposed to feel like royalty. One of the crucial changes in the liturgy is the repeated emphasis on God as melech, or king. The Rosh Hashanah service opens with the cantor’s bold Hamelech fanfare, we make the melech insertions in the Amidah or risk having to start the whole thing from the beginning, and we cry out with the plaintive Avinu Malkeynu, our Father our King. Does an omnipotent God need our flattery? Well, yes. A king is powerless without subjects. And having a king as your Father in heaven elevates you to the rank of prince or princess. Our sages tell us that we earned our pedigree by being the offspring of our exemplary matriarchs and patriarchs. The Akeyda, the binding of Isaac, which we read the second day of Rosh Hashanah, sealed our regal status in the eyes of all the heavenly realms. If we do our job over the High Holidays, we emerge whitewashed of sin and reunited with our Creator and our meritorious ancestors. We leave in royal robes, deeply perceiving our inner beauty, filled with aspirations to make the world a proper kingdom for God.
It’s not only Rosh Hashanah where we see mention of God’s kingship. An important part of our Yom Kippur service is the re-enactment of the procedures followed by the priests in the Beit Hamikdash (Holy Temple.) The reason is not only to commemorate what was. It is to remember that we had a palace, a national central address fit for our King. When we sing about the rebuilding of Jerusalem we’re not talking about the Ben Yehuda mall. Think of the sound of the shofar as a coronation trumpet; think of the unforgettable melody of the evening High Holiday prayers as the coronation suite. Thanks to the genius of the commentator Ba’al Haturim, we see that the gematria (numerology) of the Beit Hamikdash equals 861. So does the word Rosh Hashanah. There is an integral connection that bonds both concepts, inspiring us to reclaim our regal heritage and turn our hearts towards Jerusalem.
Perhaps the best way to answer the “why are we here” question is to rejoice in the fact that we are judged. Judgment day sounds like a frightening eschatological B-movie. We live in a time of unparalleled political correctness where judging others is frowned upon. What’s good for you is good for you just as long as you don’t hurt anyone. Dress in woolen suits on a hot day and sit in a synagogue to be judged? I’ll take the beach! But the reality is that we crave judgment. We’re desperate to know that we are on a true path. We spend millions on success coaches, consultants and seminars to help us realign our trajectories and reach our goals. Parents that don’t judge kids destroy their kids. Give your child consistent reward and punishment and you show your love. Ignore him or her and you demonstrate disinterest or even hatred. The idea of God judging me gives me comfort that God cares about me. In response to the love of my Father in Heaven, my Avinu Malkeynu, I am swooning with love that I am eager to reciprocate; I joyfully enter Sukkot with care that I don’t do ANYTHING to damage this precious relationship.
Chassidim frown upon saying the Vidui (confession) on Yom Kippur with a sad voice. How mind-blowing is it that we can fix everything? That God forgives us? That makes me want to cheer! A chet (sin) literally means “missing the mark,” in other words, there can be no intentional sin, only being off target because we don’t perceive the gravity of our actions. Those sins that give us impetus to repair our relationship with our Creator become mitzvot! Confession is a Torah mitzvah, and we must serve God with joy! I’m not recommending putting on a clown suit and parading around the bima (pulpit.) But when you pound your chest in pain for all those shortcomings of our humanity, do it with a smile inside, knowing that God cares, judges us with love and is ALWAYS ready for us to come home.
The High Holidays are about restoring what we always have inside, which is a sweet, loving child. Our inner child is quick to recover from a hurt, openly affectionate and sees the world with wide-eyed wonder. That child knows he or she is beautiful, is filled with desire, and since the world revolves around him he can be a tyrant prince. When a toddler sees his dad on his knees with his arms outstretched across the room, he RUNS into his daddy’s arms with joyous abandon. Rabbi Weinberg quoted the Zohar as stating that the shofar blast is really a lullaby. I know that in my last blog post I referred to the Talmudic reference that the sound is supposed to a forlorn wail modeled after a certain nameless biblical character. But for now, just picture that the final tekiya gedolah at the end of Yom Kippur is a gentle lullaby from God, just for you. May the answer to “why are we here” be perfectly clear: all we need to do is simply run into the arms of our loving Father in Heaven, and hold on to that feeling everyday of the year.