The High Holy Days are so big, so truly filled with awe! As the day rapidly approaches (Monday night, by the way), I get into my New Year mindset. I hear “Avinu Malkenu” playing in my head all the time, like Christmas music after Thanksgiving. “V’Al Kulam” plays a lot, too. It’s the melodies that touch the softest places of memory, holy days of the past, memories of friends and loved ones who are gone.
These thoughts and melodies inevitably open gates of contemplation that lead me to various significant High Holy Day concepts. The ones that always rattle my cage are all from the prayer known as U’Netaneh Tokef. I call them the Big Three: Tshuvah, tefillah, and tzedakah.
These words really affect me. It’s like God calling: “Pssssssssst! Hey you! Yeah you, the big bald guy with the beard! Pay Attention! Have you been taking care of business? How’s the asking forgiveness thing going? [That’s tshuvah.] And what about spiritual intentionality in your prayer life? [That’s tefillah.] And what’s the quality of your giving of time and your cash? [That’s tzedakah.]”
Well I hope you can imagine my response, which is flustered. First I get defensive. I reach for my catalogue of good deeds, thinking, “I’ll show you God! Look at the size of this catalogue!” I’m thinking, man oh man, I have done lots of good things. Then I lift my book of good deeds and it’s light as a feather, paltry, embarrassing… And then it’s back to the Three Ts.
There’s no room for hubris and ego on the threshold of a new year. It has to be about honesty and vulnerability towards ourselves, to God, and to each other. As much as we’ve accomplished, there’s still more to do. How we do it, how we choose to be honest and forthright, right now! reflects our willingness to take these next days seriously or not.
I beseech you, as your rabbi and fellow traveler on the great road of repentance, to lay down your defensiveness, to consider responding to the Big Three. I know this is not easy to consider, really I do. And if you don’t do it, if you completely blow off the High Holy Days, if you don’t click on the link to services, or if you do log on but you don’t bother taking it –any of it – to heart, nothing bad will happen to you. No religious police will hunt you down. You are free! And I certainly won’t lay a guilt trip down on your head, that’s for sure.
But here’s what you lose. You lose a chance to find yourself. You miss a chance to gain courage to confront the terrible weight you’ve carried on your back until your shoulders ache. You miss the chance to feel nurtured by words and thoughts and melodies, to know that within the virtual world we create online, you count, you are important. You miss the chance to ask forgiveness from someone you really hurt. You miss the chance to spiritually grow in the light of God’s presence that shines on you through the eyes of every person in the virtual sanctuary.
I know it’s hard to believe. But it’s all right here, waiting. Open your heart. Open your mind. As Ram Dass nee Richard Alpert, a nice Jewish boy from Newton, once said, “Be here now.” I couldn’t agree more.
I wrote this essay 12 years ago. And it’s so odd to reread it and consider who I was then: my age, my sense of the world, and the world’s sense of me. I’m sharing it with you as a reflection of the past, and of the abiding transcendent truth of our tradition. The writer has aged, but the text is still bold as love.