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Planning the High Holy Days Services

When I studied at Tel Aviv University I took a class on American Jewish History. My assignment was to write a paper on the Reconstructionist Movement (which I hate to admit, but until that time, I had not heard of). The first book I read, which is one of the many reasons that directed me eventually to Rabbinical School, was Mordecai Kaplan’s “Judaism as a Civilization” (published in 1934). The first line of that book reads: “Before the beginning of the 19th century, all Jews regarded Judaism as a privilege; since then most Jews have come to regard it as a burden.

I remember a friend telling me that he considers it a miracle that he remained Jewish. “I hated Hebrew School more than anything else I can remember from those years,” he said. “And when I complained to my parents about how boring school was and how mean the teachers were my father’s response was, 'Listen, I went to Hebrew school when I was your age, and I hated it. It was boring and the teachers were mean, but my parents made me go. And now you’re going to go to Hebrew school just like I did.'”

Hebrew Schools have come a  long way since, but sometimes I get the impression that many Jews still believe that anything authentically Jewish must be painful, difficult and somber, otherwise it is not the “real thing.” It is not a new phenomenon and some rabbis in the last 500 years have been trying to change it. 

One of those rabbis was Rabbi Isaac Luria (known as the Ari). The Ari was one of the most important rabbis in our history. He lived in the middle of the 16th century in the city of Safed (Tz’fat), in Israel. In one of his most puzzling statements, he said that the festival of Purim has greater holiness and sanctity than Yom Kippur. Some understood this as a mere exaggeration attempting to elevate the importance of Purim.  I understand him differently. I think that Rabbi Luria is trying to teach us that to make the High Holy Days more meaningful and spiritual we must borrow the key element of joy from Purim and apply it to the Days of Awe. 

Rabbi Luria teaches us that there are two primary emotions that lead us in our spiritual journey. One is awe and the other is love. Both are necessary and that’s why we refer to God as avinu malkeinu, our “parent” and our “King.” God is simultaneously very close to us and, yet, very separate and removed from us. We feel awe when we perceive God as the Eternal One, Maker of Heaven and Earth, whose essence is far beyond our ability to grasp. But it is love that draws us close. We understand how love leads to joy, but I believe that awe does it too. The way I understand awe is as a mixture of fear and extreme joy and appreciation. Remember the first time you saw the Grand Canyon or Niagara Falls? 

Many of us grew up when Services were very somber, as someone told me last year, “I loved the Services even though they were a bit too happy for my taste.” I have to admit that I never saw happy as the opposite of serious. We believe that there is a time to be solemn, a time to laugh and a time for all the emotions in between. Therefore, we work hard when we plan the Services for the High Holy Days to strike a balance between all the emotions mentioned above. We do it through the prayers we choose, the readings, our comments throughout the Service and the variety of melodies. I hope that you find Services this year as meaningful as we do.

Gali and I wish you and yours a sweet new year.

Shanah Tovah

Rabbi Alon Levkovitz

Wed, December 2 2020 16 Kislev 5781