A reflection on the High Holydays
While most of the world has suffered from terrible heat and other weather extremes, we have had a delightful 4 months in Whistler B.C. Canada. I like to refer to this place in the summer at least as the Garden of Eden. Beautiful mountains, lovely forests, 20 miles of bike paths, hiking trails galore and cool evenings. For most of the 4 months that we have been away, the highs ranged between 60 and 80 degrees and the lows were almost always in the high 40’s to the low 50’s. It was dry for most of the time and as forest fires broke out in the province, we only had about 4 smoke days.
For my Floridian readers, can you remember the last time you slept without air conditioning? We don’t have one here.
As the time has flown by and we prepare to return to South Florida, my wife has started an annoying chant.
“Why do we have to go back?”
It is an annoying query as we both know the answer. The High Holy days are coming, and we have no shule here.
Cheryl doesn’t need me to tell her the obvious, but her question is not looking for an answer it is a protest for having to leave the comfort of the heavenly mountains to engage the hellish heat of South Florida.
It is a battle she has no chance of winning and she knows it, so it is really a statement of her love for this happy place even if she annoys me in the process.
After a few weeks of this dance, I woke up one morning and found myself asking the same question, no longer as performance art but as a serious introspective question to myself.
Why are we going back?
The answer I believe is a reflection on what the High Holy Days mean to me and why I need to be in a synagogue to accomplish that.
First and foremost, any new year, secular or religious, forces us to be reflective. Where were we a year ago, where are we now and where do we want to be in the future?
In the last few days 2 very famous people passed away; Governor William Richardson of New Mexico and Mayor Jimmy Buffet of Margaritaville and both were not much older than me. In addition, it seems that in the last few years the number of people in our extended circle of friends and acquaintances who have been diagnosed with significant diseases has been unnerving.
I don’t know of anyone in our greater circle, who does not have either a problem that needs fixing or at the very least wakes up without assorted aches and pains.
When the airline spokesperson at the gate says that there are no more spaces for carry on so check your bags but first take out any meds that you have and bring them onto the plane with you. I immediately know who they are talking to.
My meds and my tefillin that my grandfather gave me for my Bar Mitzvah are the only things that cannot be lost.
Birthdays and the scenarios I have described are a clear message that we are not kids anymore. We are in the final quarter of life and for some not at the beginning of that quarter. If that doesn’t make you reflective what will, and I am never more reflective than at the High Holy Days.
But do I have to be in Florida and in shule to be reflective? Of course not, but if I want to see the Northern lights I don’t go to Mexico, I go to Iceland.
When I experience the High Holy Days in shule I have three tools that I bring for my journey to reflection. I have liturgy, I have nostalgia, and I have community.
Where else can I have a shopping list of existential options presented to me in text and in music like Unetane Tokef? Who will live and who will die, and
what a startling list of ways to die?
As the list is shared, I think of those who perished in one of the horrific ways enumerated. But while serious and frightening (think of who by fire and think of Maui) there is also the refrain that puts a hold on the dangers if only briefly, “on Rosh Hashana it is written, and on the day of the fast of Yom Kippur it is sealed”. And when the list of ways to leave this world is completed the prayer offers me a pathway to change myself and perhaps the trajectory of my immediate life.
“But repentance, prayer and righteous acts can avert the severity of the decree”.
To me the prayer says there are things I can control and things I can’t control but if I reflect on my life, past and future, maybe there are changes I can make that may improve the quality and quantity of my existence.
When I stand in front of the open ark to hear this prayer being chanted, I feel my dad standing next to me singing this prayer, I feel my grandmother in the balcony of her synagogue crying as the prayer is being chanted. I feel close to the many younger mees, for whom these words meant nothing as a kid, a little as a teenager, a lot more at middle age and an overwhelmingly personal message at this stage of life.
At home alone if I said this prayer, I would be alone in my memory, but in shule even if it is a different shule than my Zaydie and Bubbie’s, or my father and mother’s, or my teenage self, I feel their presence and their life experience.
Finally, with a room full of people, some friends, some acquaintances, and some strangers I feel a group of fellow travelers trying to figure it out while there is still time to figure it out.
A congregation of people makes me realize that while on this personal path of reflection I am not alone and this exercise is not lonely. I am part of a people who have come through almost 4000 years together to get here.
If reflection is the prime activity of the service in these holy days there are nonintellectual tools to help me as well. I need to hear the shofar. It has no words, but I hear the words that Maimonides put into my head for what the shofar is saying. Wake up, sleepy one there is still time to change, to make yourself better. No going through the motions, no just saying the words and allowing them to have no meaning. It is your job to make the changes and you can do it.
I need to be in shule and stare at the lights lit on my parents’ plaques on Yom Kippur, so that they can still be there to guide me in my changes. I need to feel my 73 years not by aches and pains but by turning the page to day 1 of the new year and the chance to make the year and me a little better.
“Why do we have to go home?”
The high Holy Days are coming, and we have no shule here.
Shanna tova tikatevoo
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