When Words Fail

by Brian on September 29, 2006

in Jewish Holidays and Culture


Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur are the highlights in a year of Jewish holidays. The importance ascribed to what are known as “the High Holydays” is second to none on the Jewish calendar. When it comes to liturgy, though, they are also among the toughest days of the year. The prayer service, you see, is just, well…so long.

What would normally be a manageable two, maybe three hours in synagogue on a normal Sabbath service stretches out to four, five and sometimes even six hours on Rosh Hashana…and nearly all day on Yom Kippur.

But more than the time, it’s the words. There are so many of them. And to be perfectly honest, they aren’t the easiest to digest.

Here’s a sampling:

And so all shall ascribe the crown to You…to the One who is too awesome for praise… Who suppresses His anger…Who forgives sins…

God shall reign forever…from generation to generation…awesome, exalted and Holy…O King, rescue us from evil…

He will judge the world righteously…he judges alone, who can dispute Him?

Powerful stuff. But what do you do if the words don’t speak to you? If you find it hard to relate to the text on the page? To my ear, the language sounds too authoritarian and patriarchal, designed to induce raw fear in the supplicant, which to my taste seems out of step with the rhythm and flow of contemporary life.

So every year when Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur come around, I have the same problem with all those old fashioned words. Now before you call me a heretic, hear me out. It’s not like I’m going to stop going to synagogue or remain part of the community on these festive days: my commitment to a Jewish lifestyle transcends any transitory difficulties I may have with the High Holyday liturgy. But it would be nice if the text wasn’t so unapproachable.

My annual struggle was made even more poignant this year when I noticed our thirteen-year-old daughter Merav sitting in shul, book closed, staring blankly and bored into a corner of the sanctuary.

“I just don’t get it,” she told me as we sat down following the holiday to discuss her 2006 Rosh Hashana synagogue experience. “I mean, we’re supposed to be praying to God, but does God actually listen? And how do we know there even is a God? The words say we do, but I can’t understand it at all.”

Then she added in a particularly barbed zinger aimed straight for my heart, “When I grow up, I’m for sure not going to be as religious as you.”

Hold on there, missee. Who do you think you’re talking to? Not as religious as me? I’m not your combatant here. I’m more of a partner, going through the same issues, struggling with the text, not getting it, feeling out of place. Maybe we can work this one out together. Lord knows I’ve already tried.

For example, a few years ago at Rosh Hashana time, I decided that if the words didn’t speak to me, I just wouldn’t say them. But rather than space out like my daughter, when it was time for the Amidah, the silent prayer, I closed my siddur, folded my arms over my chest, and tried to meditate.

I strived to empty my mind, to just be present, noticing all the sounds and sensations around me, appreciating life and the opportunity to be together with a community of seekers, many of whom may have secretly been doing the same thing as I was if I’d opened my eyes to take a peek.

Would this approach help me get closer to God and my fellow spiritual seekers, I wondered, or was it just a way to pass the time? Whatever the motivation, it worked pretty well. My friend Rabbi Julie Saxe-Taller of Congregation Sherith Israel in San Francisco agrees.

In a sermon prior to Rosh Hashana services last week, she told her congregation: “If during these hours together, you find an image or metaphor that especially speaks for you, feel free to remain in that place for as long as you want. There is no commandment to be on the same page as the person next to you! If what you need is to be here in this community reflecting quietly on your life, please do so with all of our respect and blessings.”

The next year, I upped the ante a bit and, in addition to meditating, I tried to relate to the inherent musicality of the service. We attend Jerusalem’s fabled Leader Minyan for Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur (see my posts here and here) where the singing is particularly joyful and the tunes lean more towards rock and roll than traditional Eastern European drinking songs (think Leonard Cohen instead of Dudu Fisher).

I once again closed my eyes but this time I tuned in to the symphony of sound surrounding me. I noticed it rise and fall, swelling to crescendos at times, at others becoming so quiet you could hear your neighbor sweat. Some congregants would quietly drum on their prayer books, others might pound on the walls at a particularly uplifting melody.

But at the end of the day, there were still the words. And as this year’s Rosh Hashana rolled around, it seemed to me a bit disingenuous to continue ignoring the words, especially given their sheer quantity. Rather than avoid the text, could I return to reading the words, I wondered, but relate to them differently, less authoritarian and more humanistically?

Why not? After all, although the words may be predominantly about our subservience to the one true God, the ultimate goal of prayer, I’ve always believed, is to positively influence our own sense of self so as to improve our interpersonal relationships and to make the planet a better place. Isn’t that the highest goal in Judaism tikkun olam – fixing the world?

I decided to try out this approach on the Avinu Malkenu section of the service, the heartfelt plea to God to intercede in earthly affairs. It’s particularly appropriate at this time of year: it’s said twice on Rosh Hashana and a full four times on Yom Kippur.

I started with what seemed to me the hardest verse: Our Father, Our King, forgive and pardon all our iniquities.

What does that mean, I pondered…to “forgive and pardon our iniquities?” Well, what if I flipped it on itself? Instead of going from the outside in, what if I thought about this from the inside out: an admonishment not from God to us, but that we should stop being so hard on ourselves.

Now that I could relate to – it’s long been one of my personal sins that, if I make a bad decision, I continue beating myself up long after it’s necessary, I just can’t let it go. Similarly if I say something to someone I shouldn’t have, even if I’ve long since apologized, I tend to hold onto the guilt and the blame.

What this verse in Avinu Malkenu seems to be saying is that we need to acknowledge that we’re only human and we’re not always going to be able to do the right thing all the time. Only by forgiving ourselves can we remove the “harsh decree” the prayer book speaks of next, and in that way move on, grow and be able to better ourselves and the world.

From there, it wasn’t hard to think of other personally meaningful ways to reinterpret the remaining verses of Avinu Malkenu:

Our Father, our King, fill our storehouses with abundance – how can we work together to address hunger and famine throughout the world?

Hear our voice and be compassionate to us – let us hear the cries of others and show them the same compassion we would want for ourselves.

Seal the mouths of our adversaries and accusers – fight for truth and don’t shy away from standing up for what you know is right, wherever that may be.

Exterminate pestilence, sword, famine, captivity, destruction, iniquity and eradication – do whatever we can to bring tikkun olam to this world – to make the world a safer, more peaceful place.

And it’s not just the words that can be made more meaningful. Rabbi Saxe-Taller stressed in her Rosh Hashana drash this year that if we listen to our own internal voice, we may be able to discover how a mezuzah can remind us “to love the people in our house” and how a blessing over wine can raise our “awareness of the preciousness of life.”

Have I found my answer? Maybe…for this year at least. But I don’t profess to have any secret formula for ultimate truth. If my approach for the High Holydays of 2006 speaks to you, go for it. If not, keep searching. But don’t give up. Don’t disengage from the tradition. This is the message I have for Merav, my confused yet very normal teenage daughter.

For as I learned this year, it’s never too late to start reclaiming your relationship with the words.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Anonymous September 29, 2006 at 8:24 pm

Thanks for this post. I appreciate both your acknowledgement of how challenging these text-heavy services can be, and your way of navigating those challenges. Wishing you an easy fast & a meanignful observance!

2 Anonymous October 3, 2006 at 7:45 am

She asks good questions, your daughter.

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