“The world is divided into two types of people. The first type of person repeats himself again and again, each time saying the same thing. The second type are those who don’t have anything to say.”
– R. Menachem Froman (translated by R. Alan Brill)
In the Jewish press this time of year there are many stories about the trials of rabbis as the High Holidays approach – trying to figure out what to say and how to say it. These are alleged to be the most difficult sermons of the year as we try to think of something new to say. Maybe. I have a different theory about why rabbis find this holiday so hard, and that is that the feedback is not as obvious. A seder with people singing and eating matzah is a good seder. A sukkah that doesn’t fall down in the wind is a good sukkah. On Purim if people are shaking the groggers all is well. What does a good Rosh Hashana look like? Everything is on the inside. You can look at people a long time and not see if they are repenting or not. So if you see me staring intently at you while you are trying to pray . . .
There is a learning curve to being a rabbi, there is a learning curve in Jewish life, there is a learning curve in life itself. Year after year we go through the calendar. I don’t think I do Passover better with each year. Years ago I would read the Haggadah intently weeks before we “go live”, looking for that new insight, the new hiddush. Then I had kids. I make my own matzah every year and I think that I get better at that each year, but the real growth for Pesach each year is now watching my children. Purim too, I don’t feel like I do Purim better year after year, though I do feel increasingly exhausted when everything is done.
The fall holidays, Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur and Sukkot, I do feel as though I do better at them each year. Not because I think of something new to say, even as I struggle to frame things better, and look for some good laugh lines. But every year I learn to savour life more. I spend more time looking at the trees and water. As time passes, I find myself learning to be more generous with others – to see them as caught-up in the same struggles and drama that have ensnared me. I learn more each year how the things that seem big are not so important, and the small things are the most precious things that we have. Every year I am a little easier with myself. Each Rosh Hashana is more real than the one that came before.
At the beginning of his treatise on the laws of prayer, before he states the order of the daily liturgy – where to stand and what to say, Maimonides defines the essence of prayer for Jews: It is simply to say the praises of the Creator, to state our needs and give thanks for what we have. Given this rather tersely stated mandate, the procedures of the next few days might seem unduly long and involved. It is clear to us on these days more than any others that Jews are indeed, in the language of Rabbi Froman, the type of people who say the same thing over and over. We say words that are written deep within us. The liturgy is long, and we deploy specialized personnel and props that only come out once a year. Chazzan Bill Slott, it is good to hear your voice again. Thank you for sharing your inspiration with us. All of it, the books, the rabbis, the chazzan, the shofars are all deployed to help us say a short and simple prayer, and to have that prayer echo through our lives over the year. That prayer is, “Thank you God for the gift of our lives, and please God, one more year.” Not new and not too long. But it takes work to be able to say it the way it needs to be said. It is this short prayer that I feel I am better at as the years go by.
May our words, our song, our sounding of the shofar bring each of us to the place that we need to be on these days. May the beauty of the world around us inspire us to thank God for our vitality and pray for continued strength. May our words, though not new, carry us into the year with determination. “Thank you God for the gift of our lives, and please God, one more year.”
שנה טובה ומתוקה