Rosh Hashana’s Messages Aren’t “Mixed,” Life Is. #BlogElul #HHDs

Cross-posted to This Is What a Rabbi Looks Like. Rabbi Berkowitz’s sermon from Friday, September 30th.

News flash! Extra, extra, read all about it! High Holy Day services are boring!

That’s what my social media feeds start to look like every year around this time. I find this especially amusing, since about 60% of my network of friends are some kind of Jewish professional or a lay leader in a synagogue. There’s always an article about the pitfalls of our holiest days of the year, how we can change them, why we should put up with them, or why we should ignore them altogether.

This year, the headline was particularly dramatic. Jay Michaelson, who spoke at our Shabbaton last year, published an article in the Forward under the title, “Why You Shouldn’t Go to Synagogue on Rosh Hashana This Year.”

But honestly, for all of its click-bait sensationalism, there isn’t much new or controversial about what Michaelson is saying. Here are his arguments:

  • The High Holy Days have become a performance, both by the spiritual leaders of congregations, and by participants who have made these services into “the Fashion Week of Jewish life.”
  • The complicated theology and the guilt-inducing messages of the High Holy Days can be off-putting when taken out of the context of the rest of the Jewish calendar.
  • Rosh Hashana in particular sends a “mixed message,” in that is presented both as the joyous Birthday of the World and the terror-inducing Day of Judgment.

I don’t disagree with Michaelson’s arguments. I’m grateful we have Shabbat every week and High Holy Days only twice a year! Expectations and anxieties run high on these High Holy Days, and sometimes it does feel like we are putting on a show. The preparation can be very stressful for our staff, our volunteers, and our members. I never see people fighting over seats or parking spaces on Shavuot. If I could get rid of all that stress for our community (and, to be perfectly honest, for myself), I would.

As far as context is concerned, I’ve often wished that as many people would join us for Purim as do for Yom Kippur. The message of Rosh Hashana’s grim language is an important one: that our lives are finite, and that we must consider each action as if these were our last days on earth. But taken by themselves, the ideas of the Book of Life, the Day of Judgment, and the Throne of Glory can be harsh and unsettling.

The High Holy Days are supposed to be a part of a “balanced breakfast,” as the cereal commercials used to say. We can no more live on celebration alone than we could live only on a diet Fruity Pebbles. Conversely, we can no more live on repentance alone than we could live only on Bran Flakes. Our cycle of Jewish holidays is supposed to mirror the ups and downs of any given year, and of any given life. That’s one reason why, just four days after the solemn Day of Atonement, we have an eight-day celebration of the harvest. So while I agree with Michaelson that one shouldn’t only come to synagogue on the High Holy Days, we’d be missing out on some pretty important spiritual nutrients if we skipped them altogether.

Which leads me to the argument I found most troubling: that Rosh Hashana contradicts itself by being both the solemn beginning of the Days of Awe and the joyous Birthday of the World. “The day itself is confused,” Michaelson writes, “an amalgam of celebration and repentance, conviviality and sobriety. Are we supposed to celebrate the Birthday of the World or get busy with apologizing to God? Do we wish each other a happy new year or a serious, pious new year? …which is it, a funeral or a quincanera?”

The answer is, it’s both. And I don’t think that’s contradictory at all.

I don’t have to tell you that life is complicated. How many of us have had a birthday where we didn’t experience both the joy of celebrating with friends and family, and the anxiety standing alone in front of the bathroom mirror, counting wrinkles, hunting for gray hairs, wondering if we can accept, and embrace, who we are becoming? How many of us have celebrated a holiday or a simcha without shedding a tear over the people who are not celebrating with us anymore, or without wondering who might not be in the family photograph next year? And how many of us have been to a funeral where nobody laughed telling a story about the very person they were mourning?

Tomorrow night, I’ll officiate at the last wedding of 5776. Weddings always seem beautiful and romantic from a distance, but from where I’m standing, there is none without complications. Weddings are not unlike the High Holy Days, with their high production value, and the heightened stress levels that comes with that. The couple, their family and friends, bring all of their drama and baggage to this major turning point in their lives. There are people missing and people not speaking, people who wish they could be there and people who wish they could be anywhere else.

Even at the most joyous, uncomplicated union of two people in love from two families that get along great, we don’t let ourselves slip into pure happiness. We shatter a glass, some say to remind ourselves of the destruction of the Temple, others suggest that it wards off evil spirits, demonstrates the groom’s virility, or keeps the guests from getting too rowdy. But the shattered glass also reminds us that, even in one of life’s peak moments, we never leave behind our brokenness. But it also reminds us that our brokenness doesn’t prevent us from experiencing joy.

One of my favorite poems, by one of Israel’s greatest poets, Yehudah Amichai, tells us that:

“A man doesn’t have time in his life

to have time for everything.

He doesn’t have seasons enough to have

a season for every purpose. Ecclesiastes

Was wrong about that.

 

A man needs to love and hate at the same moment,

to laugh and cry with the same eyes,

with the same hands to throw stones and to gather them,

to make love in war and war in love.”

happy-sad-faces

Life is a mixed bag.

This is true of being Jewish, but also of being human. We often need, as the poem suggests, “to laugh and cry with the same eyes.” There is no holiday, no life-cycle, not even any ordinary day, that contains only frivolity or only solemnity. We must have faith that we as human beings have the capacity to hold both joy and sadness in our hearts, because we continue to do so, every single day.

The Torah portion this Shabbat, Nitzavim, which we will also read on Yom Kippur, warns, “See, I set before you this day life and prosperity, death and adversity…blessing and curse” (Deut. 30:15, 19). This is presented to us as a choice, a reward or punishment for adhering, or not adhering, to the commandments. But in many ways the dichotomy is false: in any full life, we will have both life and death, both prosperity and adversity, both blessings and curses. They don’t fit into neat little compartments, and often, we experience them simultaneously. The blessing is that these experiences and emotions can balance, and even enhance one another. Our sadness is what makes it possible for us to recognize joy. And our joy is what sustains us through times of despair. This complexity what makes our lives rich and full and meaningful.

What better way to usher in a new year than by acknowledging that?

On our last Shabbat of 5776, I wish all of us a rich, full, and meaningful New Year. May our joy be enough to counterbalance our sadness, and may our sadness carve out space for us to fill with joy.

Here’s another response to Michaelson’s article, and a reflection on how we can make High Holy Day services better.

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