A rabbi and a blogger walk into a room one week before Rosh Hashanah.
The rabbi says, “So, how are you preparing for the holidays?”
The blogger says, “Erm… umm…”
The rabbi is probably just making small talk, mentioning the first thing on his mind. For the last month or so, getting ready for the approaching holidays has consumed him and everyone else at the synagogue. There are sermons to write, Torah readers and shofar blowers and curtain openers and ushers to assign at multiple services, tickets and schedules to send out, programs to print, chairs to set up, sound systems to check, Torah scrolls to roll to the right sections and dress in their seasonal white coverings, and on and on.
For lay people like the blogger, there are also prescribed activities for the month preceding Rosh Hashanah. The shofar is sounded every morning, and an extra psalm is inserted in the daily order of prayers. People who are hosting holiday meals have menus to plan, honey cakes and special round challahs to bake, chicken soup to make.
And all Jews, whether clerics or congregants, are supposed to spend these days scrutinizing our souls, ferreting out our faults and seeking forgiveness from people they have wronged.
When my rabbi asked me that question yesterday, I considered each of the obvious possibilities, and crossed them off in turn. What had I been doing to prepare for the holidays? Not a damn thing.
“Do you have your tickets?” he suggested kindly, seeing that I was at a loss.
I had come to the synagogue to practice delivering a sermon I’m scheduled to give a week from Saturday. I do this about once a year. I have trouble projecting, and the acoustics in the domed sanctuary are funky. Last year, people complained that they couldn’t hear me, and my rabbi had gently offered to give me some pointers.
The practice went well. He got me to stand directly in front of the mike, made some good editorial suggestions, and said nice things about my text. But what stayed with me afterwards was that offhand question, and my lame response.
What a bad Jew I am, I berated myself. What kind of chutzpah will it take to stand up there in front of everyone, sermonizing about the high holidays when I don’t even practice what I preach?
It took me a while to realize what I was missing. How am I preparing for the high holidays? For one thing, I’ve been working on this sermon. In it, I compare the spiritual reckoning at the heart of the liturgical season to the more, well, down-to-earth reflection farmers and gardeners engage in as the growing season draws to a close. Part of my point is to show how the old prayers can still be relevant. But my larger, less explicit agenda is to suggest that there isn’t one right way to do religion.
I love organized rituals. They build community, create an aesthetic experience, preserve history, inspire introspection, provide a framework for expressing universal emotions. But at the end of the day, they’re a construct. A means, rather than an end. And if the point of the high holidays is to remind us of the fragility of life and to encourage us to make the best of it, well, sometimes the best place to have those thoughts isn’t in a room full of people singing in Hebrew, but all alone with the sagging stems of your tomato plant.
How have I been preparing for the high holidays? I have been savoring the last of my peppers and tomatoes, and planning next year’s garden. I have re-committed myself to my new book, and resolved to keep the faith with my old book, and my agent. I’m getting back into gear at the gym and trying, once again, to shed those stubborn five pounds. I’m reminding myself that I have as much right to be heard as someone who might answer that question much more conventionally, and resolving to speak into the mike. I’m thinking about thinking about scrutinizing my soul. And if I have done anything in this past year to hurt anyone of you, I’m asking your forgiveness.
Happy new year!