Our congregants usually know a good bit about the link between a Pesach Seder and freedom, that to be in a sukkah is to celebrate the beauty and fragility of our lives in nature, and that we honor bravery and frivolity on Purim, dedication and faith on Chanukah. When asked about the High Holy Days, most know to focus on what it means to begin again with a New Year, to pray for the future of our world and community, and to do soul searching work in our strivings to try again to hit the mark.
Why is it that on these Holy Days our synagogues are full to overflowing – do they come just to observe the New Year and repent in public? It is true; they gain strength in connection to one another and find comfort in doing the sacred work with others. I know that many of us lead great worship – but that can’t be the reason so many show up. The cynic in me could say it’s because they’re “supposed to.” But I have to believe that some are coming because they are searching for God.
What kind of God, I don’t know – and perhaps they don’t know either. But if they might not always articulate it, during the Holy Days our people are looking for a deeper understanding of God. Our liturgy is certainly focused precisely on God – more so than the other holidays we celebrate; prayer after prayer, kavanah after kavanah, vidui after vidui. Many of my congregants will tell me that they don’t believe, or that they believe in something more general and of the “spirit” — still they come and sit through hours of recitation, song, and sermon – all of which are focused on God.
What does this mean for us cantors and rabbis? We often get so caught up in the choreography and the theatre, the seamless cues and flawless singing, the profound yet intimate sermons and reflective iyunim – that we forget that our congregants need tools to find their way to the Divine. Do we as clergy focus enough on the challenges and opportunities we all have with the God of this liturgy? Do we give our congregants the tools to dig deep into the realm of belief and faith?
They come to us with questions, even if not openly articulated: If God created this world, on this New Year, why is it so broken? If God asked Abraham to sacrifice his beloved one, is the pain that I experience in life to be considered a sacrifice as well? How can I be written into the Book of Life if I do not “believe” in the way I think I’m supposed to believe?
We, as clergy, always find the timing of the Holy Days difficult (but they’re always right on time) – perhaps our frustration is also with the fact that we don’t have ample time to teach about these Days, to dig deep, to study the rituals and texts, to examine Un’taneh Tokef and B’rosh haShanah yikateivun – how can we live with such a powerful God, and still hear the kol d’ma’ma daka?
The High Holy Days get lost in the shuffle of summer’s transition into fall. We should use them as an opportunity to directly engage in a conversation about God, and the new machzor may be the tool with which we can initiate these conversations with our congregations: Conversations about belief, faith, and the different pathways to, and expressions of God in our lives.
A few years ago Rabbi Rachel Cowan spoke to the Commission for Worship, Music and Religious Living, and reflected on the fact that many congregants don’t feel comfortable talking about God – they assume we, their clergy, have the God thing all figured out and therefore are embarrassed that they don’t and don’t know how to ask us. Maybe now is the time to begin these conversations using the unique texts of our Machzor as our guide and facilitator. Let’s begin again.
Cantor Rosalie Boxt is the cantor of DC-area Temple Emanuel in Kensington, Maryland, is the Director of Worship for the 2013 URJ Biennial, serves as a member of the URJ Adjunct Faculty and is on the faculty of Hava Nashira. She is a past vice-president of the ACC, and serves on the Executive Committee of the URJ Kutz Camp.
Learn more about the new CCAR Machzor. For more information about participating in piloting, email firstname.lastname@example.org.