First, my confession. And it
comes with a slice of guilt. I never liked the High Holidays. In fact, as the
thoughts of family and friend-filled Passover seders would start to fade each
year, I would begin to think about the impending Days of Awe with a knot in my
stomach and a distaste in my mouth that even the thought of sweet apples and
honey could do little to relieve. What's worse is that as a Jewish educator, I
would be charged each September to teach about the meaningfulness of these
Tishrei days: the opportunity to reflect, to return, to become a better person.
What was really swirling through my mind was the unpleasant thought of
sitting through seemingly endless services, uninspiring sermons and a day of
fasting and praying that had a sadomasochistic feel to it.
I would ask
myself why the need for the hours on hours of prayers, many of which are
repeated over and over. And isn't it enough to hear the words of Kol
Nidrei once? But three times! Really?! All while standing and listening
to musical notes dragged out for what seem like days. And I was cynical of the
whole spectacle. Synagogues having to move locations to accommodate larger than
normal crowds-reminiscent of college days when on final exam day the lecture
hall would fill up with students who had not shown up all semester for class.
And cynical of the fashion shows and the maneuvering for the best seats that
money can buy.
But all of these thoughts changed about 15 years ago when
I was in my late 30s. The holidays were approaching, and I was anything but
looking forward to them. I was introduced then to a work booklet called
Where Are You? by Jael Greenleaf and subtitled The Inventory of
the Soul in Preparation for the High Holy Days. Each page included a verse
from the High Holiday prayer Ashamnu. Following the verse was a related
prompt and a half page for written reflection. Every night I would read the page
and then journal.
That year, as I reflected upon the High Holidays just
past, I realized that they were not only meaningful, but I actually felt
refreshed and empowered. I reflected about it after the holidays and realized
something that had never occurred to me previously.
Every year until that
year, I would walk into services on the holidays and would expect to be
transformed somehow. I would enter the sanctuary on the first night of Rosh
Hashanah and unconsciously I would be thinking: Rabbi, Cantor, do your work.
Make me a better person. Make me feel something. And only that year on the cusp
of my fifth decade, did I realize that this was my responsibility. I
couldn't expect to walk into the final exam having not done the work and then
expect to ace the test.
Every year since then I have done my homework.
Beginning the first day of Elul (traditionally the beginning of the days of
preparation for the High Holidays) I have made a plan to get me into the mindset
of the challenging work of reflection and self-transformation. One year I bought
a book that included a reading for each day of the month preceding the High
Holidays. One year I journaled each night, focusing on ways I hoped to do
better in the year ahead. Another year I read a psalm each night, a psalm
traditional for this time of year.
A few years ago I decided to focus my
preparations on a specific goal and aspect of my life that was troubling me. At
the time I was feeling disconnected from friends and social relationships. It
was taking a toll on my spirits, and I knew that I needed to do something to
repair this. I decided each day to call a friend with whom I had not spoken for
a while. By the end of the month, having spoken with or left voice mails for 30
friends with whom I had been out of touch, I found myself feeling much less
disconnected and significantly more whole. And walking into services on the
first day of Tishrei I was ready to engage. I had done my homework.
next year I was feeling less charitable than I wished I were. I decided that
every day I would put a dollar in my tzedakah box. My hope was that I
would make a concerted effort to carry this over for the rest of the year and
beyond. When I sat in services last year I reflected on my active engagement in
the Elul preparations.
This year, as I have these last years, when I
teach about Elul and preparing for self-transformation and when I journal with
my students about this, it will be from my heart.
And on the first day of
Tishrei when I walk into services on the first evening of Rosh Hashanah, I will
be able to say, as Abraham and Moses say in the Torah and as the Cantor chants
at Kol Nidrei evening, Hineini, here I am. I am here. I am ready.
Jeff Bernhardt is a Jewish educator, Jewish communal professional and
writer living in Los Angeles. His dramatic readings have been used by synagogues
to help their congregants prepare to enter the High Holidays. His first book is
On Sacred Ground: Jewish and Christian Clergy Reflect on Transformative Passages
of the Five Books of Moses (blackbird books, 2012). He can be reached at www.jewishdramas.com.
This article first appeared in the Jewish Journal of Los