Our sense of Jewishness is always bound up with the wider people of Israel. But that can also lead to a sense of outsourcing our Jewishness to the community. AND The most sacred places of Judaism are the minds the hearts of individuals and of families.
Like so many Rabbis, I have been contacted by numerous people concerned with this year’s Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. For some, these are their highlights of the year. For others, it is their Jewish lifeline that keeps them and their families connected to the Jewish people. This year under COVID rules, many Synagogues cannot fit all their members. Some might be forced to offer abbreviated services, with facemasks, with less singing and no children. Many people are wondering whether to go at all, whilst others worry that their children will miss out.
I actually think that, fascinatingly enough, the prayers of Rosh Hashanah themselves offer a perspective that can really help. At the centre of the Rosh Hashana Musaf (‘additional’) service is the blessing ‘Zichronot’ usually translated as ‘memories’. We talk about the memories we would like God to consider when judging us. Yet these are not personal memories, but national collective memories: Noah standing singlehandedly against the moral depravity of his time; Abraham’s family teaching ethical monotheism; and the ‘Children of Israel’ marching out into a desert with complete faith in God. How are these national memories meant to help us as individuals going through personal judgement?
An important clue is that the Hebrew word for ‘memory’, ‘Zikaron’ is not merely memory, it is identity. When we stand before God we tell Him that somewhere deep within, we actually identify ourselves with the people of Israel. We were born not decades, but millennia ago. Even as individuals, we carry the dreams, hopes and aspirations of the people. The nation carries us, and we carry the nation. That is how we approach God on Rosh Hashanah.
Our sense of Jewishness is always bound up with the wider people of Israel. But that can also lead to a sense of outsourcing our Jewishness to the community. That is to miss the point entirely. The whole point of ‘Zichronot’ is to say that the national identity of Israel is my identity too. It challenges each one of us to realise that we are responsible for the preservation and eventual realisation of the dreams of the collective community of Israel.
When we are being lifted by the community, we do not need to exercise our own independent Jewish muscle. Any muscle that is not exercised weakens and atrophies. This year we cannot rely on the Rabbi, the Chazzan, the community and the children’s service to carry us through. But that also offers an opportunity to step forward and to discover our own Jewish muscle, and to raise ourselves, our friends and our families, through these days.
That takes some work.
The prayers of the High-Holy Days are not at first so easy to relate to. On Rosh Hashanah they talk about God as ‘King’, and on Yom Kippur they ask us to take a hard look at ourselves and become better people. They are not personal prayers written by us for us; they are national prayers written by Israel for Israel, and sometimes for all of humanity.
What if we were to take some time aside, in the days and weeks beforehand, and to study the prayers. Perhaps we could find a guide – a Rabbi, an online course, or a friend who is more knowledgeable than we are. Perhaps we could get a group together and learn the prayers and the tunes for ourselves. We may discover just how powerful, moving, meaningful, relevant and life-changing these prayers can be. And when we do walk into shul, facemasks and all, the voices of the siddur will resonate with our voice. We will not be the one needing lifting, but the one providing it for ourselves and others.
It is not just the prayers. In Judaism synagogue is really important, but it is not the most important part of our lives. The home is even more important, as are the centres of study. The most sacred places of Judaism are the minds the hearts of individuals and of families. This year we can place much more emphasis on those. We can prepare the Rosh Hashanah meals together. Maybe some families can cook together. Whether or not we do, we can certainly prepare together with discussions, games, stories to share, questions to pose and so on.
The most iconic moment of the synagogue service is the sound of the shofar. The blasts begin with one long calling sound, a tekia, followed by the broken sounds, known variously as shevraim and teru’ah, and then once again the long blast. The long blasts are regal, suggesting the entry of the presence of God into the hearts and minds of the community. The broken blasts represent a broken world, and sound like a crying child. Each year we think about the way things should be (the long blast) then reflect on the broken state of the way things are now (the broken blasts) before letting the long blast lift our ears and our sights to envision a healed holy world, and how we can play our part in the coming year to make that fixed world a reality. The long blasts are the voice of a community coming together, singing together as one. The broken blasts are more painful, and represent a situation like ours when we must stay further apart.
This year the broken sounds may resonate more strongly than usual. Some minds may be cast to the tears of a loved one whose life was lost. For others, it may be the tears of financial ruin. For all of us the brokenness of the sound might represent the community of people who can not yet fully come together as one.
And yet there is a curious and counterintuitive message that the Torah gives us, the moment that the anti-Israel prophet Balaam found himself forced to bless Israel. His blessing included this transformative insight: Hashem ‘sees no corruption’ in Israel, for ‘Hashem [Israel’s] God is with him, and the teruah-blast of the King lies within [Israel].’ (Numbers 23:22)
Balaam saw that God does not view us through the lens of the long blast of the Tekiah. Instead, He enters the nation of Israel through our Teruah – through the broken blasts and the broken cries. What Balaam saw is that God looks at Israel based on how it behaves in the years like these, when members cannot be carried by one another, but when each needs to step up and be counted. He hears our cries when we are imperfect ad sees the efforts we make, each as individual broken sounds of the shofar.
If we stretch that extra mile, God Himself assembles the pieces, taking each one of us and putting all our efforts together. In the absence of the great ‘Teruah’ of one big packed shul singing together, God takes each of our efforts and puts them together into His own, even greater, call of the Shofar.
May we all be able to be a part of that Shofar, and may this be a year of sweet-tasting blessing for all of us individually, and all of us as one.
- September 7th 2020