Synagogue or park?
I know we don’t confess to rabbis but I have a confession! Even if I can read some of the prayers on Rosh Hashanah I still don’t understand what I’m saying.
To tell you the truth, I’d rather take a quiet, reflective walk in the park this year on Rosh Hashanah than spend all those hours in synagogue saying a bunch of words that don’t mean a whole lot to me anyway. (I’m not a member anywhere anyway).
Do you have any suggestions?
— Marc B.
I’m quite confident that your words echo the sentiments of many. The prayers are meant to be a powerful, relevant and meaningful experience. Sadly, our distance from the original Hebrew, coupled with a lengthy synagogue service, can be intimidating to say the least and is often a tremendous letdown for individuals seeking a spiritual experience.
As a matter of fact, according to local studies some 80 percent of Dallas Jewry doesn’t even enter a synagogue or temple over the course of the High High Holy Days!
I will offer a few words of advice that can perhaps alleviate your challenges and help you get more from the service and this meaningful time of year.
Keep in mind that five minutes of prayer said with understanding, feeling and emotion means far more than hours of lip service.
Don’t look at the prayer book as an all-or-nothing proposition. Try looking at each page or each prayer as a self-contained opportunity for reflection and inspiration. If a particular prayer doesn’t speak to you, move on to the next one. Don’t expect to be moved by each and every prayer.
Read the prayers at your own pace, thinking about what you are saying, without being so concerned where the congregation is reading. You don’t need to always be “on the same page” with everyone else! If a particular sentence or paragraph touches you, linger there for a while, chew it over and digest it well, allowing the words to caress you and enter your soul.
Apply that prayer to your own life and situation and use it as a connection to God. If you’re really brave, close your eyes for a few minutes and meditate over those words.
Don’t let your lack of proficiency in Hebrew get you down; God understands English. Like a loving parent, He can discern what is in your heart in the language you express yourself.
By sitting in the synagogue, (as opposed to the park), you join millions of Jews in synagogues around the world. You are Jew, and by joining hands with fellow Jews you are making a powerful statement about your commitment to Judaism and your place in Klal Yisrael, the Jewish people.
The Midrash teaches us that “there’s no King without a Nation;” only when we join together, as a congregation of Jews to coronate the King on Rosh Hashanah, then do we build a kingdom of Heaven on Earth.
If you’re not affiliated with a synagogue and are looking for a comfortable place to pray that doesn’t require much background, I am happy to inform you of the “High Holiday Learner’s Services” that are taking place in multiple locations throughout the Metroplex.
DATA is conducting these interactive, explanatory services, which take place mostly in English. The services rely on a fresh, new approach; they combine ongoing explanation, discussion and camaraderie with other bright, interested Jews who are seeking to add meaning and understanding to their High Holy Day experience. Holiday meals and child care are also available to remove those concerns and help you make the most of the day.
Feel free to contact me at my e-mail address and I can advise you where there is a High Holiday Learner Service closest to you.
With best wishes for a healthy, meaningful and joyous Rosh Hashanah to you and all the readers, with peace in Israel and for all of Klal Yisrael and the world.
Rabbi Yerachmiel D. Fried, noted scholar and author of numerous works on Jewish law, philosophy and Talmud, is founder and dean of DATA, the Dallas Kollel. Questions can be sent to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.