What the High Holidays Mean to this Rabbi

Oasis Songs: Musings from Rav D
Friday, September 12th, 2016 – 8 Elul, 5776

On Sunday, September 18th, from 1-3 pm, Congregation Neveh Shalom is hosting a remarkable conversation entitled, “Open Book: A Talk Across 3 Generations of Rabbis.” It will be an honor to sit and converse with Rabbis Isaak and Stampfer. Between the three of us, we represent over a century of rabbinic practice. One hundred years. What is so remarkable about that span of time is gaining perspective not only on what has changed, but which of our values and practices have proven durable. I hope you will join us. You can find more information here.

Friends, the High Holidays are almost here. It’s a good time to think about any promises or pledges we have not yet fulfilled. Did you make a commitment during a Yizkor service to give tzedekah in the memory of a departed loved one? Promise your children, partner or co-worker something? The clock is ticking.

Shanah tovah u’metukah. A Sweet New Year to you!

It’s begun. Every year around this time, a sort of dread and anxiety washes over me. In the beginning, it would paralyze me. Now I observe it with alternating states of dispassion and curiosity as it cycles around again. If I had to name it, I’d call it the pre-high holiday terrors. Most rabbis I know experience it to some degree, because the stakes are so high.

We are called upon to offer up a message that will speak to everyone. Young and old, learned and unschooled, the spiritually attuned and the psychologically less aware. What does it mean to have to find a message that speaks across this vast landscape of humanity? How can any one person, limited as we all are, say something that can resonate to so many different types of people?

Adding to this pressure, rabbis are well aware that for so many Jews, this will be their one taste of Yiddishkeit for the year. We want–I want–their experience to be a positive one, an uplifting one. I want to be accessible, while challenging people to enhance their moral, spiritual and intellectual sides in the hope that this will lead to action and a change of heart. What an impossibly herculean task to set for oneself!

The strange thing is, I have learned to welcome this yearly burden. You see, the only way you can ever possibly say something that will touch others deeply is first to be touched yourself. Each year at this time, I find myself peering deeply at myself, staring at my neuroses, which I can so handily push away the rest of the year. Isn’t that the purpose of the high holidays? They are so terribly important, but only if we approach them with as much awareness as we can muster.

So this pit of yearly dread forces me back upon memories. Just this past week, I was busy cleaning up and ordering my home library. That’s also part of my high holiday preparation. If I am going to open up the floodgates of chaos that lurk on the inside of every human being, my surroundings better be well-ordered.

Straightening all my books, getting the spines to line up evenly, I stumbled upon the slim cardboard sleeve where I store all of the old photographs and newspaper articles I have of my father. What you have to understand about my dad is how grounded an individual he always seemed to me. I lived in one house my entire childhood, and my dad seemed as certain as its walls. Like bedrock, he was my unmovable object, utterly dependable, both in the ways I could reach him, and in the ways he was beyond contact–emotionally protected and somewhat distant in the ways men of his generation often were.

Growing up, I never felt myself to be steady in the ways my dad was. Childhood for many of us is a period of uncertainty. After college, advancing my cooking career meant that I would wander more. From New York to Boston and West Virginia, then New Mexico, Seattle and San Francisco, where I had my epiphany that I was destined to become a rabbi.

Reading the newspaper articles of his accomplishments, and then my sister’s eulogy of him, and my own, I found myself unexpectedly weeping. Of course I missed him. I don’t need the contents of a narrow cardboard box to surface that for me. But what struck me for the first time was how much movement and upheaval characterized his early life.

Dad grew up during the Great Depression. Back then, if you signed a year’s lease, you could get a free month’s rent. So there was a period of several years where my grandparents and he would change apartments every year. That didn’t exactly stop for him after he left home.

Dad was a chemist, and his education took him from New York, to Ohio and then to Boston for post-doctorate work. Then into the petrochemical industry before he turned to academia. More than a third of his life was spent in motion and upheaval. Although those facts were always in front of my face, I missed that entirely. I thought my peregrinations made me broken, meant that I was destined to be a wanderer unlike my steady, stable father.

The truth is that the chaos of life is always there. If you are lucky, you find your place in the world, and the trappings of stability provide you with some shelter. Laura and I feel lucky to have landed in Portland. After only a year, we feel very much a part of the landscape here–like it belongs to us, and we belong to it.

Yet illness, loss and change always sweep up against the barriers we erect. Against the swirling undercurrents, we have two primary defenses. One is love. The other defense, most appropriate for this season, is the moral decisions we make. Each, I think, provide us with the most stable ground to which humans can aspire.

Into this season of repentance, we are given an opportunity to open ourselves up to this existential anxiety. It’s painful, and most of the time, we run from it. But if we have the guts to stare into the center of our storming natures, we gain new perspectives. And that is the source of our teshuvah, our ability to change how we respond. Ultimately, teshuvah is our surest anchor.

May you use this new month of Elul wisely. The Days of Awe are coming fast.

With all my blessings for a sweet new year,

Rav D

Shabbat Table Talk

You might consider using this article and the following questions as conversation starters over your Shabbat dinner.

  1. Do you have any sort of enduring questions that return to you each year during the High Holiday season? Why do you think these questions resurface?
  2. How does anxiety appear in your life? What are the lessons it teaches you? How might you use it constructively?
  3. What are the stories you tell yourself about your parents? How do those stories help you, and in what ways do they interfere with your own growth? Is there a different and true way that you can view your parents that might be more helpful to you?