This is normally the kind of blog where I talk about knitting, or going to the faire, or ranting about how I need to clean my room, or a variety of other topics. Most of the time I stay away from religion, or at least I attempt to (a look back through posts may show I talk about it more than I think – but I honestly don’t remember).
Today though, I’m going to get on my soapbox and take the opportunity to be a little introspective and a little thoughtful.
*coughs slightly as she steps up on a rather large box*
Around this time of year, every year, Jews celebrate the two holiest holidays on our calendar. Rosh Hashanah (today and tomorrow) and Yom Kippur (Oct 3-4).
There are, like all holidays, jokes about who does and doesn’t show up at services. And of course, there’s always some semblance of truth behind them. The congregation I belong to boasts almost 300 member families. I’m not to sure on the exact number these days, but it’s probably somewhere around there. I remember when I was young, we’d have to hire a second rabbi to lead a second set of services in the school building because we couldn’t all fit in the sanctuary. These days (and a synagogue remodel later), we all fit in the sanctuary, but still have separate child services. The point is, only a fraction of those people are at shul on a regular basis and these “twice a year Jews” are the butt of quite a few jokes.
Sitting there today, reading the machzor, and listening to the shofar, it got me thinking. And no, it wasn’t the kind of thinking that makes you question your faith. I’m quite happily Jewish, thank you very much.
This was the kind of thinking that has you wondering how the traditions developed, why we say and do what we, well do, during services and on holidays. Some things, it’s easy to answer that question. It’s in the Torah. Other things though, are a little harder. Where did the belief in the Book of Life come from? As far as I can remember, there’s nothing in the Torah about that. What about the way we read the Torah itself? How did those musical intonations become what they are?
Some of these questions came from the fact that I was reading “The Story of the Prayer Book” during services today. No, I don’t always pay attention in shul, why do you ask?
It’s a fascinating tale of the last 3-4,000 years of Jewish liturgy in an easily digestible form. Now, things weren’t terribly interesting in terms of Jewish tradition before the First Temple was destroyed in Jerusalem by the Babylonians. Before that happened, well, things had been pretty stable (other than that rather lengthy side-trip to Egypt), and Jews were pretty set in their religious practices. Then BOOM! Temple is gone, Jews are forced out of their homeland and they were left asking “Now what?”. That question is what started our current tradition of communal prayer instead of animal sacrifice. It has, of course, expanded and grown, first as an oral tradition, then slowly being written down. It was that writing down of the prayers and teachings that kept Jews together through the following millenia and into the modern day. Without those teachers and leaders over 2,000 years ago, Jews wouldn’t be where we are today.
So what does this have to do with Rosh Hashanah?
Well, at the heart of it, it’s a holiday about community. We come together to celebrate the new year. To pray for life and happiness in the coming months. We plead with Adonai to seal us in the Book of Life, to bless us with health and prosperity in the coming year.
Rosh Hashanah is the celebration at the beginning of a new year, with all the hopes and dreams that come with staring something new, and the reflection of leaving the previous year behind.
Sometimes, sitting in services, I’ll close my eyes and listen to the congregation. It’s amazing to think that all of these people, gathered together, who are so different from one another, can raise our voices in song and communal prayer and join together as one large chorus. That’s one element I really enjoy about services. Everyone get to sing and pray together (whether you can sing well or not!).
There is one part of the service that always sticks with me. It’s something we chant during the Amidah that we say on both Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, and I’ll leave you with the phrase to ponder.
בְּראשׁ הַשָּׁנָה יִכָּתֵבוּן
וּבְיום צום כִּפּוּר יֵחָתֵמוּן
B’rosh ha’shanah yikateyvun
u’ve’yom tzom kippur yechataymun
On Rosh Hashanah it is written
and on Yom Kippur it is sealed
We’re taught to take the time between these holidays and to take the time between them to reflect on the past year, make things good if we can, and overall set ourselves in a good place for the new year.
Even if you aren’t Jewish, and I have a good idea that most of my followers aren’t, may I suggest taking a little bit to reflect on the past year and think of something you can do better in the coming one. Whether it be figuring out how to help others, making something right in your family, or whatever, one can always improve and overall just make themselves better.
Shanah Tova, a sweet and happy new year to all of you.
*steps down off of box*
PS: Knitting will return in the next post, promise!