What do you we think people should want to hear rabbis speak about on Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur? Do they want to be comforted and soothed – reminded of the power of hope, the possibility of happiness or finding the means to peace? Or do they wish to be aroused and challenged by the brokenness in the world, the myriad needs of the Jewish community and the wrongdoing in their lives?
The insight of one of my teachers in rabbinic school was that a rabbi’s job is to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” Most people I’ve met are fine with the first half of the dictum, but every year I hear from people who don’t want to come to services to be disturbed. It reminds me of a joke about a new rabbi who sought advice from the synagogue Board about what she should talk about for her first High Holy Days.
The president said, “Talk about something to do with being Jewish.”
“Great,” the rabbi replied, “I’ll talk about Shabbat.”
“Maybe not,” one Board member offered, “A lot of our members don’t observe Shabbat. They might take offense.”
“How about talking about Israel?” the rabbi offered.
“What?!”, said several on the Board, “Do you want to create controversy the first time you speak? We have people here with such different ideas about Israel.”
“All right, I’ll talk about why people should study Torah more for themselves, not just send their children to Religious school,” said the rabbi.
“I don’t know,” some trustees said, “Why make people feel bad about what they don’t do.”
“In that case, what should I talk about?”
“Rabbi, just talk about being Jewish.”
Each person has different yearnings and needs for what they seek during the Days of Awe. Every one of us seeks both comfort and challenge, to be put at ease and goaded to action. It is likely that at some point on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur you will hear a prayer, music or teaching you do not like, troubles you or challenges what you believe. Instead of lashing out against those who offer a different point of view, use the strong feelings you have as a motivation for further reflection, conversation and respectful debate.
You do not need a rabbi or prayer to provoke you. Indeed, this is a time when our souls should be stirred. The weeks before and during the Days of Awe are a time for deep, inner, spiritual reflection. Honest self-appraisal (חשבון הנפש) cannot help but confront us with challenging questions. Have I been honest about my faults? Have done all I could for others? Am I the man or woman I want to be? Is the person others see truly the person I am? What do I hide from others – and why? Indeed, if you come to the synagogue expecting to be moved, but take no time before or during services for true self-reflection, the point of these days will be lost. The goal is not to feel that we are bad. Rather, the purpose of these days is to become the best we can be and to seek a world that ought to be.
The Days of Awe, then, are inherently meant to trouble and disturb, to uproot and challenge. This is not, however, controversy for its own sake, but for the sake of Heaven. Such debate, our sages teach, will endure (Pirkei Avot 5:17). May it be a time of good and blessing, but also one that forces us all to face the hard truths and unmet needs of our lives, our families, our people and the world.
Rabbi Irwin A. Zeplowitz serves the Community Synagogue in Port Washington, NY.
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