Sunday evening, Jews will observe Rosh Hashanah, the New Year (5777). Ten days later comes Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. Unlike during the rest of the year, the sanctuary at Sherith Israel, my synagogue, will be full. Interestingly, most in attendance won’t know the Hebrew (our prayer book offers transliterations into English), or the prayers and rituals. What’s more, they won’t come back for another year. So what’s the draw?
All religions mark sacred days and seasons, which continue through centuries, even millennia. Contrast our own lives: here today, gone tomorrow, remembered the next day, forgotten the day after. No wonder many seek consolation—even those in whose lives religion plays a negligible role.
The vast majority of Jews in San Francisco don’t join synagogues. Many have no interest in Judaism even if they remain affixed to various components of Jewish culture. Others drop out completely. Still others, particularly young people, explore Judaism but view synagogues as too institutional, symbols of permanence intruding on lives in flux, reminders of their settled, stolid parents. Some find alternative Jewish communities—vibrant and creative but generally requiring little or no commitment.
Even many synagogue members—outside of Orthodoxy—forego core Jewish practices. They work, party and shop on Shabbat (the Sabbath—sundown Friday to sundown Saturday). They view the dietary laws as holdovers from a primitive, superstitious past, digging into their bacon cheeseburgers. That’s their choice, and they’re entitled to it.
Nonetheless, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, along with Chanukah and Passover, exert a powerful gravitational pull. Why? The High Holidays help keep us real.
In the increasingly secular West, we see ourselves as rational beings, masters of our fate, captains of our soul. Yet despite our material possessions, we frequently find ourselves ill at ease, unsatisfied. We sense that something’s missing. Rational beings? We witness rampant self-destructive behavior, poverty, hatred and violence. Yet humanity can produce enough of everything people need to go around. If rational means being selfish, how rational do we want to be?
Masters of our fate? Few mature adults haven’t experienced life’s unforeseen and uncontrollable twists that altered or swept away their dreams. The older we get, the more we acknowledge that random stuff happens. What’s more, our own imperfections place stumbling blocks before us.
As to being captains of our soul, that we can achieve in great measure. It’s possible to live with our human frailty, do better by ourselves and others, and achieve a measure of inner peace. But it takes attention and work. That’s why many Jews who hold Judaism at arm’s length attend High Holiday services. They seek to connect with the eternal and unknowable. To find comfort in touching base with something that’s bigger and more enduring than themselves. And they do it, even if those goals are subconscious.
I’ll be at Sherith Israel Sunday night and Monday morning. (The Reform movement observes one day for Rosh Hashanah as do Jews in Israel; Orthodox and Conservative Jews outside Israel observe two.) I’ll recite the prayers, chant familiar and new melodies, and reflect as I do each Shabbat. All those “twice-a-year” Jews surrounding me? I’ll delight in their company.
Because every now and then it’s important to crack the facades we erect around our carefully crafted personas, peer inside and see who’s home.
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