Out There: High Holy Day dissonance

On holiday gifts: “Let it be chocolate, even honey. Anything but dry wine. No more dry wine. I hate dry wine. Why do people always bring dry wine?”

Illustration by Pepe Fainberg (photo credit: PEPE FAINBERG)
Illustration by Pepe Fainberg
(photo credit: PEPE FAINBERG)
IT’S A Rosh Hashana liturgical moment seared into my memory.
There I was as an early teen, sitting during the long day’s prayers with my father in our Denver synagogue.
As Jews customarily do, I was swaying back and forth in prayer.
All of a sudden a man leaned over to my dad and whispered in his ear: “Can you please get your kid to stop swaying, he’s making me seasick.”
Talk about a mood killer.
In a flash my thoughts went from renewal, repentance and how much longer till we eat, to “what the heck is that guy’s problem?” My dad was aghast, and said something sharp in response. I pretended not to hear, and just swayed on with greater fervor.
It’s a wonderful holiday, Rosh Hashana. A time of spiritual rejuvenation, introspection and personal growth – for those who grasp it.
It’s also a challenging time, as synagogue- goers are faced with the dissonance between what they should be feeling, and what they actually are feeling. A dissonance between vowing to be better, and being placed – even as we are making mental vows of self-improvement – in situations that immediately challenge those vows: like being in the synagogue for five hours at a time on two consecutive days of often-difficult- to-understand liturgy.
Every people has its New Year’s resolutions.
In the West it typically happens sometimes between Christmas and January 1. In China, on the Chinese New Year. And for us, it’s Rosh Hashana.
But what makes our situation unique is that even as we are in the midst of prayer and thinking about those resolutions, we are placed in a situation that immediately challenges them. And it all happens concurrently.
It’s as if God said to the Jewish people: “Okay, you’re making all these wonderful resolutions vowing to improve. Very nice. Now let’s check out your sincerity.
I’ll place you for hours upon hours in a crowded, stuffy synagogue with a guy sitting next to you constantly blowing his nose, and another guy in back of you banging his leg against your seat. Now let’s see your pledge about having more forbearance.”
One of the many ways the sages divided up the Torah’s commandments were those between man and man, and those between man and God. Paradoxically, it’s the man-to-man relationship that gets so tested during Rosh Hashana davening (prayers), even as you’re supposed to be talking to God.
If a guy nearby is holding a loud conversation, do you tell him to hush? If so, how about all those vows to be more tolerant? If the cantor is going on way too long, singing essentially for himself and apparently confusing the sanctuary for an opera hall, do you expel a loud, restive sigh because you just can’t take it any more? If so, how about those vows about being more patient? And if you fall asleep during the rabbi’s talk, what about those pledges to be more diligent during Torah study? The challenges do not stop at the shul’s doorstep. The entire Rosh Hashana holiday – of all times – is packed with situations that test your character.
For instance, you come home from the synagogue, the house is cleaned, the food is made, the table is set, the guests arrive bearing gifts.
“Oh please, oh please,” I think to myself, harboring the same thoughts I have had since I was about seven, “let it be chocolate, even honey. Anything but dry wine. No more dry wine. I hate dry wine. Why do people always bring dry wine?” So on a day when I have contemplated over and over during synagogue services the need to be more grateful and appreciative for everything I have, my first post-synagogue thoughts – as The Wife reminds me – are jarringly ungrateful ones.
Then there is the Rosh Hashana lunchtime conversation. With lots of people around the table, the conversation gravitates naturally from what is happening in the world to what just happened in shul.
Since many of those around the table certainly pledged to try to speak less ill of others during the upcoming year, one would imagine that the conversation should go something like this: “Boy, didn’t the rabbi speak wonderfully. I could have heard him talk for another 30 minutes.”
Or, “I could have listened to the cantor sing for the entire afternoon.” Or, “Isn’t it nice that the same man has been blowing the shofar for the last 40 years, I guess nobody else wants a try.”
Instead, what inevitably comes out on a day when multitudes of Jews the world over are pledging to cut back on the gossip, is some juicy shul tattle.
The shofar-blower who really shouldn’t be blowing any more, because he doesn’t have it; the father who really should have taken his toddlers out when they started to whine; and the neighbor’s son whose hair is just way too long.
And say, just for argument’s sake, you make it through the two-day holiday without succumbing to your baser angels, and your self-improvement resolutions emerge still intact. Well, don’t get too self-satisfied. Next week you’ll face the same challenges, only this time when you’re hungry, thirsty and nursing a pounding headache.
Welcome to Yom Kippur.