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?
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 often a tremendous letdown for individuals seeking a spiritual experience. As a matter of fact, according to many studies, some 80% of Jews in Dallas don’t even enter a synagogue or temple over the course of the High Holidays!
I will offer a few words of advice that can perhaps alleviate your challenges and help you get more from the service and the High Holidays.
Firstly, 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 use it as a connection to G-d. If you’re really brave, close your eyes and meditate over those words for a while.
Don’t let your lack of proficiency in Hebrew get you down. G-d 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 a 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.
Furthermore, by attending synagogue you have the opportunity to hear the shofar blast, which is the main mitzvah of the day and even more important than the prayer service. The sound of the shofar has a profound effect on the inner recesses of our souls, hearts and minds and helps enable us to “wake up” and begin a new upward trajectory toward our connection to G-d and our rich traditions.
The theme of Rosh Hashanah is our coronation of G-d as King. The Midrash teaches us that “There’s no king without a nation.” If someone rules over many disconnected individuals, he’s not a king. A kingdom exists when all the subjects bind together as one, with one beating heart, to accept the glorious rule of the king.
This applies to us as well. Only when we join together, as a congregation of Jews to coronate the King on Rosh Hashanah, do we create a Kingdom of G-d. When you join the congregation by attending synagogue, listening to the call of the shofar and praying with your fellow Jews, whether a little or a lot, you become a subject of the King and a partner in the establishment of His Kingdom. This is true regardless of what pace you pray at or what particular prayer you might be saying at any given time, or if you spend some time uttering your own prayer straight from your heart. The main thing is: You’re with your fellow subjects and you’re on the team!
And trust me, you’re important and the team won’t be the same without you!
With blessings for a joyous and meaningful Rosh Hashanah which will be the foundation of much continued growth throughout the coming year, to you and all the readers.
Rabbi Yerachmiel Fried is dean of Dallas Area Torah Association.’