[dropcap]T[/dropcap]his year was the first time in a long time that I did not lead services on the second day of Rosh Hashanah. Having recently left my chaplaincy position of 25 years (and where I conducted services on both days of the holiday), I was invited to conduct Rosh Hashanah services at a small Reform congregation in a community near my home of Columbus. However, because it is a Reform synagogue, the second day of the holiday is not observed.
Thus, on the second day I found myself in the somewhat unfamiliar role of being just a “layperson”. Without any rabbinic responsibilities viz leading services, I was free to choose to attend one of the many religious services being held in Columbus on the second day.
For a number reasons, I decided to attend the service at a small Orthodox minyan here in town. One of these reasons was because I have never participated in High Holiday services that were so traditional: where the services was all in Hebrew, where the “style” was traditional davvening without a trace of formality, and—despite issues re egalitarianism, problematic theology, etc. that non-Orthodox Jews would understandably have with such a service—EVERYONE present was deeply engaged in praying and spiritual reflection (which is often not the case…).
How deep and widespread this engagement by everyone hit me suddenly when we came to the recitation of the Malkhuyot verses, which affirm G-d’s sovereignty in the world. At this point in the service, it is the custom in traditional synagogues for the leaders of the service—the rabbi and the cantor—to stand before the open Ark, and as the words “we bend the knee and bow and acknowledge before the supreme King of Kings” are recited, they bow, fall to their knees and prostrate themselves on the floor (the only other time this is done is when the same prayer is recited on Yom Kippur). But at the service I attended, EVERYONE prostrated themselves.
What’s my point?
My point is this: In the forty years that I have conducted High Holiday services, I have always been moved by this part of the service, but…every year I have also been aware of the “theatrics” involved. Every year prior to this year I was aware of all eyes on me, as I would bow, drop to my knees, and “fall on my face”—knowing that those congregants who came from traditional backgrounds probably expected me as the rabbi to “perform” this gesture as the accompanying words were said–perhaps hoping that the sense of awe and humility dramatized by my genuflecting would be transmitted to them. Heck, that’s exactly what I often hoped for in that moment—that folks who were physically present but spiritually disengaged, would, if only for a moment, experience a vicarious twinge of awe and humility.
Well, this year it was different: I wasn’t on stage, and there was no vicarious feelings by others in the room. Nobody had to “inspire” those in attendance, because everyone was fully engaged.
And at the moment when I would have fallen to my knees as everyone else watched—this year, just before I was going to go down to my knees, I saw everyone go down.
And in that moment when my face was to the ground, I felt something that was simply liberating: I wasn’t distracted by wondering what others were thinking of this gesture which, although part of the tradition, still seems strange and “un-Jewish” to the untrained eye. In that moment, it was just me…and G-d. In that moment I felt a whack of humility in my soul that I’ve never felt before—simultaneously I felt small and I felt redeemed.
To my fellow “laity”, I would say: come next High Holiday season, don’t leave it to the leaders to do this for you. When the time comes in the service to genuflect, do it yourself: fall on your knees and then on your face.
If you’re so inclined, you’ll get whacked by a strange but wonderful feeling of humility that will not only overwhelm you … it may just re-JEW-venate you.