Judaism, one could argue, is obsessed with marking time as sacred, normal, or anywhere in between. At this time which Judaism demarcates as particularly sacred — we are in the middle of the Aseret Ye’mei Teshuva, the Ten Days of Repentance — it is hard not to be caught up in the spiritual fervour that the tradition deems appropriate, especially in Jerusalem and at Pardes. The question, though, is: what if I am just not feeling that this particular ten days marks the peak in my own life this year in connection to the themes of the time as decided by the Jewish tradition? What if I am in no mood to do serious introspection and consider all the people I have wronged, knowingly or unknowingly, over the last year? Of course, this thought bears in equal measure on all times in the Jewish year that have certain themes attached to them, and also to any other calendrical system that adds meaning to certain parts of the year.
This year, unlike most years I can remember, I actually have found Rosh Hashanah and the days since then to be particularly meaningful — in other words, I have actually found the themes of these days dovetailing with where I am at personally. This is all well and good for me right now, but this realization makes it abundantly clear that this is rarely the case, and so the question remains pertinent.
I think for me the answer is that we all should simply do the best we can. What this and all other Jewish holiday themes represent for me are issues and thoughts that we should all be wanting to occupy our time anyway, but if no time is delineated in advance, we run the risk of forgetting about issues like repairing broken relationships in the rush of all that goes on in our lives. So instead, we keep these times and remind ourselves of the concurrent themes as they arise each year (or week, as the case may be) so that these thoughts continue to occupy us. And if one year (or week) the message is more faint, or altogether silent, then let us reflect on why that is. In either case, and especially with the Ten Days, the point is to reflect — with the hope that reflection leads to changed action — and not that we have revelatory experiences every time.
And for me at this time, when the davenning can seem eternal and many of the words being said, when understood, do not speak to me, this message acts as a good reminder. As an educated Jew, familiar with the themes of the time that is being consecrated, if faced with a prayer that is not meaningful, why not take a moment to reflect on the concrete themes that I do find meaningful? With the Yamim Noraim (generally translated as the Days of Awe or the High Holidays) especially, the focus is on davenning more than external acts (or eating), and so finding meaning in the hours spent in shul is crucial. An example of making the themes relevant for me at this time of year revolves around the distinction made between repairing relationships that are ben adam l’chaveiro (between a person and a fellow person) and ben adam l’makom (between a person and Hashem). While I have no trouble seeing the urgent need for people to take time to consciously think about what interpersonal relationships in their lives need repairing, repairing one’s relationship with Hashem is a more distant concept. So instead, I choose to read the term more literally. In the terminology used, the name for Hashem is makom, which literally means ‘place.’ And I think that I am not alone in recognizing, with the current state of our world, that much repair is needed in our relationships to The Place. It is not hard to use the words given to uncover a deeper meaning that really speaks to you as an individual.
G’mar Chatima Tovah
May you be sealed in the Book of Life for the coming year.