One of the prayers in the High Holiday liturgy that always gets the strongest reactions is called "Un'taneh Tokef,' and it includes the
famous (infamous?) line: 'Who shall live and who shall die?' It talks about people who will perish by fire or drought (which certainly hits home after the harsh weather we've suffered in this country throughout the summer), and people who will die by flood (which also seems particularly apropos...). It also indicates that God is sitting in judgment, deciding everyone's fate for the year to come. Let's face it; many people hate this prayer.
Now, I don't have any easy answers, and I'm not going to spend too much time defending this prayer... at least not right now. We'll talk more about it in High Holiday services next month, so please come and struggle along with me when we get there. But I will say that the liturgy is trying to provoke us to
feel something. Some prayers are consoling and comforting, some are joyous and glorifying, some are dark and morbid - because we, the congregation, all of us sitting in that sanctuary, we are feeling different things. We aren't all in one mood, coming to services feeling one thing. Our differences are reflected in the prayer book; our multitude of emotions and challenges are mirrored in the words of different authors throughout Jewish history.
We are now in the month of Elul, the preparatory month of repentance before the High Holidays. Interestingly, this week's Torah portion is called Ki Teitzei, meaning 'When you go out,' and next week's portion is called Ki Tavo, meaning 'When you enter.' It's like the Torah can't decide if we're coming or going! And these two readings are always read back-to-back, and always in the month of
Elul. So there is an element of confusion, of searching, of disorientation, and of journeying that is inherently a part of this season. Ki Teitzei features many laws about creating community, mainly civil interactions between individuals, and between the individual and the greater society. We are thus reminded that being part of a congregation means sacrificing SOME of your autonomy to help the group function as a whole. Our High Holiday Machzor, our prayerbook, is filled with readings and ideas that appeal to different people at various stages of life. In much the same way, our community has something for everyone, but a lot of it isn't going to resonate with you and with your life.
I'm just preparing you right now - the High Holiday Machzor is going to be filled with prayers that don't mean anything to you. It's ok! Start thinking, right now, about what you DO want to get out of the holiday season? What are you comingto synagogue to change or to reflect upon? Don't worry about all the liturgy that isn't speaking to you, just as you also shouldn't worry about the people sitting next to you singing too loud or too soft, talking too much or too little, wearing the wrong thing or too much perfume. Spend the rest of Elul getting ready for the High Holidays by developing a personal plan of action. Otherwise it's just going to feel like a lot of going and coming, and getting angry at the same prayers that bothered you last year. Once you sit down in your seat and quiet down all those other voices, this is your chance to make real change and improvement in your life. Don't waste that opportunity!
Photos in this blog post:
3. Image courtesy of a very confused iPhone...
4. Image courtesy of an equally confused Machzor.