Are you a “Yom Kippur Jew?”
Many Jews only practise their Judaism once a year, on Yom Kippur, as well as sometimes on Rosh Hashanah. Many synagogues know that members and strangers will come out of the woodwork to observe the High Holidays. The High Holidays are big business and the height of the membership campaign for many congregations, so the pressure of “putting on a good show” is paramount for the clergy and leadership of a synagogue. But, despite this effort, synagogues know that many attendees will not be back until the following year.
But, why do so many Jews attend the High Holidays to the exclusion of all others? While I love the energetic resonance that happens when the synagogue is full, at times, I have found observing Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur the “traditional” way to be so overwhelming and so formal that I became unable to focus on the purpose of the day.
There must be other ways to observe. Can we use do-it-yourself (DIY) rituals to connect deeply to our traditions? What if we strove to reconnect with the meaning of the holidays hidden under all the pomp and circumstance of the traditional shul services?
The onset of the month of Elul is the time to look deep within our hearts and prepare spiritually for the Days of Awe. Practising mindfulness, meditation, or even trying to develop deeper self-awareness during this period can help us prepare for the High Holidays and for autumn. Elul’s focus on self-awareness lends itself to small rituals. One year, a friend and I committed to reciting Psalm 27 every day, and it wasn’t long before I took the habit of singing “Ahat Sha’alti” as I walked or cycled to work.
That same friend and I also purposefully skipped our synagogue’s Selichot service last year because we wanted to do something more intimate with a few friends. In candlelit twilight, we sang psalms and prayers and then spent a few minutes writing down things we regretted and the names of people we wanted to apologize to. We held onto those papers until Yom Kippur and then individually burned them along with our regrets.
In this same vein, I appreciate alternatives to traditional High Holiday practices. Ritual Well includes a piece by Rabbi Debbie Young-Somers – http://tinyurl.com/ksmuuk2 – which suggests an alternative to fasting for Jews who struggle with, or are in recovery from, eating disorders. Rabbi Young-Somers writes that “eating on Yom Kippur is a holy act” in this case, and that “rather than finding ‘purity’ or ‘spiritual growth’ through denying themselves food, the act of eating itself [on Yom Kippur can be] an act of teshuvah.” The piece details making a ritualized seder plate from which you can eat, mindfully and with kavannah, throughout the day.
Similarly, Rabbi Jay Michaelson urges us to seek a meaningful connection in his recent Forward article “Why You Shouldn’t Go to Synagogue this Rosh Hashanah.” http://tinyurl.com/hhljmfs
Rabbi Michaelson suggests we skip the “bombastic” service of Rosh Hashanah and commit, instead, to attending synagogue services for another holiday and/or Shabbat. But he doesn’t encourage us to ignore Rosh Hashanah altogether; instead, the conclusion to his piece centres on connecting to what is at the heart of the Days of Awe.
Rabbi Michaelson writes that, while the pomp and circumstance of Rosh Hashanah can be “insincere,” decorated with “mass-market packaging,” and therefore alienating, “there’s still the shofar,” which “cuts through all that.”
Rabbi Michaelson writes that “the ancient magic of the ram’s horn is a reminder both of how much has been lost in terms of spiritual intensity and of how much is still available – if you want it and work for it yourself.” He encourages us to get ourselves a shofar, learn to blow it or practise listening to it, and let ourselves be moved by its call. Ultimately, his advice is to concentrate on a small act of ritual that allows for true introspection and connection.
As a complement to, or as a replacement for traditional synagogue services, DIY rituals and alternative observances can help us prepare and observe the High Holy Days in a way that is truly meaningful and appropriate to our needs.
With apologies to my colleagues in synagogue leadership, especially those in charge of membership, I wish you all a sweet and meaningful New Year.