Having a soul matters. Of all the events and circumstances that can befall a person, the only thing that will truly fell a human being is losing touch or contact with one’s soul. This is the tragedy of diseases like Alzheimer’s where we witness the dissolution of the connection before our eyes. Alzheimer’s is an organic disease yet what we wrestle with on the High Holy Days is not organic illness but human inflicted wounds that lead to the dissolution.
Cynicism can surely severely strangle the connection. Alcohol and drugs can cause much of the same damage given enough time and dosage. Toxic relationships such as abuse can rip deeply into those vital connections. Strife, stress, estrangement, and ongoing fatigue will also suffice. Fear is a definite killer of the rootedness in one’s soul.
The Days of Awe are a peculiar time for those who are struggling to maintain or regain a connection to the soul. On one hand, we have all of these beautiful uplifting images of compassion and mercy, of family and community. Here, our liturgy says, you are safe. On the other hand we have images of God who will punish you with death as the text states, “Who shall live and who shall die?” These are the distressing images, written at a distant time and place, but still very much alive in our imagination. These are images that hurt deeply those who are already afflicted with a tortured soul.
As a worshiping congregation, what do we do? How can we help those who are afflicted with a disconnect from their souls? We are not going to change a liturgy that we have received from a tradition of a thousand years.
The Hasids tell a story of a man whose son left the community and went to study Talmud in Warsaw with the Haskalah or Rationalist community. They were known for their secular tendencies. The son returned after a year and told his father “I don’t believe in God.” To a Hasid, this means that the young man is separated from his soul. The father rushed to the rebbe and told him what had happened and what his son had said.
“What do I do?” asked the father.
“What do you do?” said the rebbe, “You love him all the more. Now more than ever, he needs you.”
Let us make an extra effort this year to reach out to our neighbors. Let us make an effort to put aside our own selfish concerns and turn our attention to those who are in need. May we learn just what it means “to love him all the more.”
A writer recently complained in the pages of a local magazine of how cooking had left the kitchen and become a spectator sport on television. In a similar vein, a review of a new video game lamented the loss of music around the homestead of yore in which everyone participated and today’s imitation of someone else’s greatest hits on a fake guitar. The complaint is that today’s entertainment is a spectator sport of what was once a participatory one.
Religion isn’t. Well, religion shouldn’t be a spectator sport although there are a few who try. I don’t expect to see “Davening for Dollars” on the Wii anytime soon, but I have no doubt at least one hundred or more have already thought of the idea and dismissed it. Maybe it will appear on an iPhone app first. Religion is a contact sport, in the best meaning of the term.
The High Holy Days make a stark contrast to the cultural trends that the culture hawks see and fear. The holidays cannot be experienced from the couch in the family room or in a darkened theater with digital sound. To savor the Days of Awe, a person has to walk into the sanctuary and take a seat. Every task and experience in that room is visceral: the testing of the seat cushion, the cramp of the pew, the sharpness still tactile on some of the corners of the book, or the slightly confused look of “do I know you?” Rather than sitting still, all the people in the room are reading aloud or singing along or thumbing pages.
There is a taste to the air in the room that is indeterminate. The smell is subtle, more than the number of bodies and perfumes. The scents are tinged with aged wood and vacuumed carpets and decades of Jews sitting in the same seats. No other day, not even Shabbat, has the same feel in the sanctuary. It’s as if this peculiar Jewish time was stored away after the last prayers of Yom Kippur and retrieved for the first strands of music for this Rosh HaShanah.
We gather and the sanctuary comes alive, brimming with human emotions of expectation and dread, anxiety and anticipation. This year we will welcome another year. Yet, there will be something utterly familiar: the Days of Awe in a sanctuary with handshakes, hugs, and calls of greeting.