But here's the thing.
In whatever manner we choose to observe these sacred days, we need to be less critical of those who do not do as we ourselves might do and those who do not believe as we ourselves might believe. We are a fragmented people, us Jews. Some will attend synagogue this week and next and some may not. Some may have family dinners or break fasts and some may choose to eat alone. Some may pray and some may abstain. Some may be altogether uncomfortable with the notion of God and some may actively attempt to summon a Divine Spirit. Some may hopefully seek to right their wrongs and some may not believe that there are wrongs that need to be righted.
After spending a career trying to understand community needs and responses for these days, I have finally come to the conclusion that there is no cookie-cutter approach that will work. We as a people must seek to discover and actively maintain a sensitivity for those who have become disenfranchised by the product our organized religion has been selling. There is a reason that putting "Jews in the pews" has become so challenging and most of it stems from our lack of listening to those concerns. So, in order to start the new year off with some much-required balance, I offer a few tips for all of us observing over the next ten days. Hopefully, we can put these days into their proper perspective.
For those attending synagogue.
1) Stop worrying about what the people next to you are wearing. This is supposed to be the time when judgement should come from a higher place and not you. Are my prayers any less worthy if I choose to wear jeans? What matters is what is in the vessel, not the vessel itself.
Once Rabbi Elazar son of R. Shimon was coming from Migdal Gedor, from the house of his teacher. He rode along the riverside on his donkey, and was feeling happy and elated because he had studied much Torah.
There chanced to meet him an exceedingly ugly man, who greeted him, "Peace be upon you, my master!" R. Elazar did not return his salutation but instead said to him, "How ugly this person is! Are all the people of your city as ugly as you?"
"I do not know," said the man. "But go to the craftsman who made me, and say to him: How ugly is the vessel which you have made!"
Realizing that he had done wrong, R. Elazar dismounted from his donkey, prostrated himself before the man, and said to him, "You are right. Forgive me!" But the man replied, "I will not forgive you until you go to the craftsman who made me and say to him, 'How ugly is the vessel which you have made.'" (Talmud Taanit 20a-b)2) Don't search for fault in the rabbi's sermon and stop with the critiques. You may not always agree with what she/he has to say, but understand that great thought and care went into those remarks. Try and find the meaning beneath the surface.
3) Don't be so caught up in your own experience that you neglect the stranger or the newcomer. Find that person and invite them to sit with you. Synagogues can be giant cliques. Seek out the new person. We make new members when old members remember what it was like to be new.
4) Take five minutes during the service, any five minutes, and close your eyes. Breathe deeply. Listen to your own voice, your own thoughts. Try and remember why you decided to come. Make this place your holy place. You have to do the work if you want the results.
5) Stop looking around for who isn't there and focus on who is. Other people's decisions should have no bearing on your own. Remember that repentance, prayer, and charity temper judgement's severe decree.
For those who gather outside the synagogue.
1) Try and remember that there are reasons for these days that don't only involve food. Have some serious discussions at your tables about the themes and realities of the Yamim Noraim. Jews around the world are facing some difficult realities today. Let's not whitewash them with honey cakes and gefilte fish.
2) Add one extra ritual to your tables. Maybe it is some environmental experience for the "Birthday of the World" or maybe it is simply lighting festival candles that you haven't in years. Let the youngest amongst you hear and try to blow the Shofar. Do something to make the experience more than just dinner.
3) Make an effort to understand why some members choose to go to synagogue instead of gathering for dinner. Their feelings and beliefs matter too.
4) Don't dismiss religious observance as fantasy or fairy-tale. We who find meaning in it have our reasons for prayer, just like those who have no use for it have theirs. We need to respect each other's choices.
And to those who won't be doing anything during these days.
We will miss you. This is a time when all Jews can hopefully find some common ground for our concerns and our experiences. If this is not the year for you to rejoin us, then maybe next year will be. We just want you to know that you are always welcome. We are your people.
Shana Tova U'Metukah. I wish everybody a happy, a healthy, and a peaceful New Year. May we write our own stories and our own pathways, whatever they may be, in the Book of Life.