Modified from the original post back in 2009
Looking ahead toward the High Holidays, I imagine many Jews are considering (and perhaps dreading) what is – for them – a rare visit to synagogue. Arriving to find a large, anxious and somewhat impatient crowd (and indeed, likely a cranky crowd on Yom Kippur), the entire experience justifies why one would want to stay away as much as possible.
If that’s your experience, then take my advice and do yourself a favor.
How can I say that? Isn’t it a sin to tell another Jew NOT to attend synagogue on the holiest day of the year? Stick with me, because I have a nefarious ulterior motive.
You see, I’m in that crowd too. I find myself looking at the unfamiliar faces this year and feeling sorry for the experience they are having.
Trapped in a room where no amount of air conditioning could combat the heat of hundreds of bodies, sitting (and standing, and sitting again ad nauseam) through a service that may or may not be familiar, reading liturgy that is often humbling if not downright accusatory (“we have sinned” and “we are not worthy”).
I want to stop the service for just a minute, and explain to the beleaguered visitors that on most weeks, there is room enough for people to change seats during the service so they can sit nearer (or further) from the action, or to just sit with friends and enjoy their closeness during prayer; On most Shabbats, the service clips along and the text is one of unbridled joy and rest; During the year, there is a “relaxed formality” in the room, where we are cognizant of the prayers we are saying, but laid back about kids coming and going, people coming in wearing shorts or sandals, and so on.
But it’s Rosh Hashana/Yom Kippur. There is no realistic way to do that. I wonder if it would help even if I could.
I am reminded, however, of a quote by Rabbi Shimon Apisdorf, in his book “The One Hour Purim Primer.”.
The upshot is: if you are going to be a twice a year Jew, please please PLEASE make those two times a year be Purim and Simchat Torah. Come when there is joy, and celebration; when you are likely to walk away with a positive experience that will make you want to return more often.
“For Jewish kids whose parents only take them to synagogue twice a year, I would like to cast a vote in favor of those two days being Purim and Simchat Torah, not Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. When children – and adults – immerse themselves in the celebration of Purim one of the most important lessons they learn is that Jewish life incorporates the gamut of human emotional experience. Singing and dancing, costumes, fun and all around merrymaking are as integral to Judaism as charity, prayer and fasting. “
You can read the quote in it’s original context here.
(My nefarious ulterior motive exposed:) I want you to come at a time when you have such an amazing, engaging, interactive experience that you will WANT to come back again. And by the time next year rolls around and the High Holidays are upon us, you too will know that these two moments in time are not emblematic of the entire year. There there is a beautiful rhythm in which each point on the calendar flows with various levels of emotion, spirituality and effort; where some days (like Yom Kippur) are long and intense and require mental preparation. But others are so easy and fast that you feel a pang of regret when they are over. I want you to have a chance to see them both.
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