Once again I am floored by how close the High Holy Days are. It shouldn’t come as a surprise to me as I have been working to line up Torah and Haftarah readers and many other congregants to actively participate in High Holy Day services. For our congregation of less than 250 families, we usually have at least 100 participating in leading parts of the service along with our Rabbi and Cantor. But there is something to realizing that Selichot is within 8 days and I am not ready emotionally.
Each year, the rush to get everything ready is replaced by a sense of something amazing is to occur. On Selichot in addition to the study and service, we change our Torah mantles from the year round blue to the white of the High Holy Days. All of our Torah mantles were designed and made by members of our congregation and I love the experience that when the Ark is opened these are indeed out Torah Scrolls unique from any others.
The sense of holiness surrounding us descends like a gentle soft blanket, enfolding, comforting. There is no question that observing the High Holy Days has changed significantly since my childhood. At the age of ten, in a much more traditional synagogue, I was positive, absolutely positive that my name was not being rewritten in the book of life that year. I have no idea what I thought my misdeeds were that would have warranted this. So, I sat quietly in Yom Kippur services waiting for the lightning bolt to pierce the ceiling and find me. Now, the question becomes not if my name is being rewritten but which names of my family and friends will be added to Yizkor Memorial books this year of 5771.
The High Holy Days after my mother died were so difficult that I choked massively reading the names in our book. It is a tradition at our synagogue to read the names during Yizkor service and I and one of the other past presidents do this as a way to honor our congregants and their families. After my mother died, one of my cousins remarked that I was now the matriarch of the family. I asked him, “What does that buy me?” The answer, “nothing, you’re just older than the rest of us”. I realized that all the people in my parents’ generation in our family were now all dead and my cousins and I had indeed become our parents to the generations after us.
The High Holy Days are a chance for restarting, to look at our lives and see if there is something we want to change- not outward things like weight or hair color, but our inner values. During the middle ages and later it was not uncommon for people to write ethical wills. Something that allowed them to express what ethical values they wanted their children and families to have. What in their lives and their way of living Jewishly, they wanted to give as an amazing gift to the next generation. How many of us wish we had taken an elderly family member or neighbor on a walk when they were afraid to go out alone; or spent more time volunteering at any of the many programs that add to life for the underprivileged in our communities. Take a study course and learn more about Judaism or any other topic of interest. There is still time to add something more to our lives.
When I was 50 and chanted Torah for the first time at my adult bat mitzvah, I experienced what I can only describe as awe. Each time I chant Torah and it is almost 18 years (chai-life) since then, I experience anew that sense of awe that I can’t put into words. This Yom Kippur morning, I will once again chant from Nitzavim and step for a few seconds into another part of my life.
I wish at times I could stay in that moment of awe, but Judaism realizes that we are here to live our lives on earth and do all the mundane every day chores, so that we can look forward to the moments of holiness that come into our lives and transform us. I truly wish that all of you will experience moments of holiness and awe. May the Holy One of Blessing continue to light the neshama that is your soul and may it burn brightly to guide you through life.
May this New Year be one of health and strength and opportunities for all of us, no matter what our age. May we be surrounded by families and friends and enjoy the sweet taste of apples and honey and have an easy fast. L’Shanah Tovah. And may all the names we remember at Yizkor on Yom Kippur afternoon be for blessing. Zichronom l’vracha.