By now the members of the congregation have received the listing of High Holiday services.
The usuals — the big two — are there, of course. And there are the other opportunities to walk, talk and pray among the community. It's nice.
I'm frankly always glad to see the High Holidays coming.
Kids these days are better educated that I was, so many of them have a richer understanding of the Holy Days than I did. I imagine that my classmates in the Confirmation class of 1976 were also better educated that I was and probably got more out of services than I did.
Every so often, I go in the side hallway and find the photo of that Confirmation class. I can look at my face and see right through my eyes into my soul. My soul is pure. But my soul seems to be focused on growing hair.
Well, anyway, here come the holidays.
And we kick off the holidays with S'lichot. That's the late night, post-Havdallah service where the Torahs are redressed in white. And we hear, for the first time, the annual melodies. And we start to realize: here it comes. It's always spine-tingling for me.
But this month — the month of Elul, which precedes tumultuous Tishrei — is supposed to be a month of preparing.
So, while our fully educated clergy is pondering their Big Sermons for the Holy Days, please let this half-educated Jew describe his meager preparation for the big time coming.
First, I try to remember what the holidays are about. A year is just long enough for me to forget everything about my religion. That's why I'm glad we re-read the Torah every year. It's always new to me.
Well, I look around for information about the holidays. I look everywhere. Here's what I've come up with this year.
Let's start with Yom Kippur, because that's the Shabbat of Shabbats.
A teacher long ago taught me how to think of Yom Kippur: It's the day the Jews act as the real estate lawyers for all humanity.
We pretend we're in landlord court and the landlord is God and God is disturbed about how we have been neglecting the property and mistreating the neighbors. God has prepared eviction notices for some of us — and all of us might just be sent packing. We plead and promise and, as the gates are closing at Neilah, we toss in a few extra petitions.
The 10 Days of Awe which precede that climactic moment is when we walk around apologizing to each other. We do that because we can't appear in landlord court if we are still squabbling. The landlord wants peace in the hallway.
Rosh Hashanah is the anniversary of the original groundbreaking. It's the birthday of the world. Blessed as we are with a different new year celebration every four months, that can be hard to remember. So I'm reminding us now.
Anyway, back to the courtroom on Yom Kippur.
I'm not the best lawyer in the congregation — I hope, because I'm not a lawyer — so I'm not sitting first or second chair at the defense table. I figure we have our rabbis approaching the bench. And now Star Trompeter, too.
What I'm saying is: I've got a lot of time on my hands during the Days and the services.
Much of this time is taken up with eating and not eating.
The rest of the time is taken up with prayer book page turning.
But, I'm not the best page turner. I'm constantly lost and wondering which page we're on. This is because I get stuck on some of the pages. And then everyone else seems to race off and I'm left behind, pondering just what some prayer means.
When I was teaching seventh grade in our Religious School, and really had to know what everything meant, I once asked Rabbi Misha, "What does this blessing mean?" I pointed to a part of the siddur and Rabbi Misha looked at it and asked me one of those tricky rabbi questions, "What do you mean?"
"What do you mean, what do I mean?" I asked. "I mean, what does this mean?"
If you are my rabbi, you really earn your salary. I sometimes think I could be an entire congregation.
Anyway, he says, "It means what it says. It doesn't have a secret meaning. It means just what the words say. They might seem far-fetched or hard to accept, but they aren't in a code."
I think he wanted me to be happy about this, but it only slowed me down. Because, if the prayers aren't in some ancient Jewish pig latin (you'll excuse the expression), then I feel ever more responsible for knowing what I'm saying.
It's not like when you rent a car or order dinner in a fancy restaurant — you aren't supposed to understand what you are agreeing to drive or eat. You just close your eyes and nod.
Here in the defendant's box, I need to know what my testimony actually means.
So, next time you glance my way during High Holiday services and mistake me for someone who knows what's going on, let me assure you: I'm completely lost.
But I know where I'm lost — and here is where I am:
I'm thinking about creativity.
This is partly because I teach creativity at Ohio State.
And it's also because Rosh Hashanah celebrates creativity because it's the anniversary of God's creation of the earth.
I'm told, by people who really know Hebrew that the phrase isn't "In the beginning, God created...," it's "In the beginning of God's creating, God created...." Small difference? Not to me. I teach creativity and God sounds like a creative artist entering the studio.
And I'm thinking that even God must overcome divine creative blocks. What am I going to create today?
And so, falling farther behind you in the prayer book, I start thinking of all the questions I try to answer to overcome my mortal creative block.
Here are those questions.
They are questions that only we can answer for ourselves. I ask them during High Holiday services.
Question number one is a biggie:
- What would I do if I had no fear? Of course, healthy fear keeps me safe all day. But I still need to ask, "What would I do if I had no fear?" Our consumer culture wants me to fear everything, and buy my safety from my fears.
There are many more questions that occupy me when I'm pretending to pray beside you. Here are some other questions I'm asking myself:
- Who are the people whose opinion truly matters in my life?
- Who are the people whose opinion does not truly matter in my life?
- And what would I do now, anyway, if they were all suddenly dead and buried?
- In whose hands do I place my morale?
Then two questions about who I am and what should I do with my time:
- What do I love doing more than anything else?
- How can I figure out how to do more of that during the coming year?
This next question comes from my interpretation of The Chosen. In Chaim Potok's classic novel, we are told that — each year — we must acquire a teacher and choose a friend.
I know a lot of people, but I don't have a lot of friends (except on Facebook).
In real life, I want to be a good friend to a few people, rather than a superficial friend to more. So, how many friends do I have? Maybe 10? Probably only five. I can't be a good friend to an unlimited number of people. So, if I add a friend each year, I'm going to have to get rid of one.
So here's the question:
- If I were to quietly separate myself from 10% of my friends, which ones would I choose? (That sounds bad, but that 10% probably wants to get away from me, too.)
So, how do I know which friends to jettison? By asking more questions:
- Which people in my life bring me down?
- Which ones ask me to be something other than what I want to be?
- Which people lift me up?
- Which people help me to become my most authentic self?
These aren't pious questions. They're not even questions I'm proud to be asking myself. But I am the only one who can ask them of myself. And they need to be answered.
- What are my parents' traits that I want to inherit? What are their traits that I want to avoid?
- What are my children's traits that I want to inherit and avoid?
The world doesn't care if we answer these questions, so like I said, only we can ask these questions of ourselves.
If you like these questions, I posted them on my blogsite just before services started. artieisaac.com
Oh, and before I completely miss this week's parsha, there's a favorite bit about the mitzvah that we build a parapet — a low wall or a guardrail — at the edges of our rooftops.
Roofs used to be flat. People like King David walked around on the roof. David should have had a taller parapet — a privacy parapet? — to prevent him from gazing upon Bathsheba bathing on her rooftop. Such a parapet would have saved him from his fall.
So for me — because now we don't spend so much time on the roof — the roof means the top, the peak, the best of life. And none of us wants to fall from that roof.
So while I'm lost in Lala Land during High Holy Day services, when all the Jews around me are on the roof, as close to heaven as we ever are, I think about what might keep me from falling off the roof.
I think of the parapet as education.
So I'm sitting quietly wondering a couple more questions:
- what don't I know?
- And just how am I going to learn it next year?
We spend on education, because it is a parapet that can help us from falling off our rooftops.
What are you going to learn this coming year?