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Ennui shall overcome! The definitive cure for High Holidays boredom
We enter these Days of Awe filled with both anticipation and trepidation. I feel quite a bit of both at this time of year. I feel it’s my job to help you feel both too – and to enter next week’s services fully prepared to be totally present for the totality of the experience. Rabbis always hear complaints about services being “boring” – not mine, of course – but out there and that troubles me. Boredom connotes detachment and listlessness. The French word ennui is closest to what we are feeling when we say we are “bored” at services. One writer calls it “a feeling of weariness and dissatisfaction, an attitude of lethargic disappointment, a preoccupation with the fundamental emptiness of existence.”
Without getting overly dramatic, boredom is usually less about the service itself than it is about the worshiper. Don’t get me wrong; I take it as my responsibility to lead a service that is as engaging as it can possibly be – with inspiring music, readings, explanations, meditative moments and ample opportunities for congregational participation. The rest is up to you.
So what follows is my High Holidays Anti-Ennui Survival Guide, some suggestions for you, wherever you happen to be.
If you feel disconnected, try to connect, in whatever way you can. I give some suggestions below. If you see someone else looking disconnected, take a moment to reach out and welcome that person, while respecting the desire for privacy. Each of us a greeter. We are all responsible for our neighbors. You can assume that every person in the room next week will be feeling the same angst you are, whether about a family crisis, a health challenge, job troubles, or just general feelings of insecurity about the future.
If you don’t understand a prayeror disagree with its apparent theological message, join the club. Remember that we are in dialogue with a liturgy that spans many centuries and continents. Think of the Machzor as an eclectic playlist on your favorite electronic device (I’ll take an iPhone 6, thank you) . You’ve got your Mozart, your Beatles and your Taylor Swift; many different voices speaking across the ages, in dialogue with one another. And now you will be adding your own, equally authentic voice to that eternal symphony, the ageless Jewish and human quest for a purposeful life.
Now I have a big advantage over most of you. I never get bored during services, for a variety of reasons: For one thing, I am working – I need to stay completely focused on what is happening and what is upcoming. Also, I understand the prayers from many perspectives: historical, existential (oh, that word again), experiential, personal, musical, you name it. Just today, I was listening to my father’s classical cantorial Rosh Hashanah service, taped “live” in 1971. So I can relate to the prayers not only as documents of the Jewish experience, but as a personal reminiscence from my childhood.
To a degree, most of us have similar childhood memories. What’s harder for most non-rabbis is to be able to understand the prayers enough to grapple with them, and to stay focused when there are so many distractions.
So my next suggestion is: Eliminate the Noise. I mean that literally, of course, but even more in a non literal sense. Yes, it’s important not to disturb those who are trying to engage. But we need even more to eliminate the other kind of noise, the internal distractions that are the hallmark of our multitasking, 24-7, A.D.D. everyday lives. Do yourself a favor and leave all of that at the door. Think about the bigger questions that need to be asked. Let yourself get swept away by the prayers. Lose yourself in the repetitive cadences, even when you don’t understand what they mean. That’s not so important. Eliminate the noise in your head. You will thank me. And if you do that, you will never be bored.
Don’t try to keep up. You don’t need to pray every word. Understand that the service may go at a pace that won’t allow non-speed davenners to pray every word. This is not a competition. What I recommend instead is that you focus on certain phrases or concepts and ask yourself some basic questions. If you find one that means something to you, repeat it again and again in your mind, or even out loud. Take it home with you. Let it marinate. It could change your life.
With that in mind, here are some key “mantras” from the prayers to reflect upon.
Sim Shalom – the prayer for peace,includes this incredible verse:
For by the light of Your face You have given us, Adonai our God, the Torah of life, and love of kindness, and righteousness and blessing and mercy and life and peace;
I say this prayer each morning, and when I do, allow those words to linger on my tongue. Our way is the way of life, kindness, righteousness (tzedakkah), blessing, mercy and peace. I absolutely promise you that if you say that verse over and over, especially in Hebrew, where there is a mantra-like rhythm, you will become a more kind, charitable, merciful and peaceful person – and therefore happier.
In the Unetane Tokef prayer, (which has a remarkable history), there are several memorable verses that I carry as mantras, including “Who shall live and who shall die.”
The idea is that we carry the power of life and death in us, that we also have tremendous power to shape our own destiny. Leonard Cohen’s version only highlights how we can interpret ancient prayers with great freedom and creativity.
But the kicker is “Repentance, Prayer, and Charity annul the severe Decree.” How can we not sing that refrain and not be changed by it?
In Musaf, right after the shofar is blown, we come to the line “Hayom Harat Olam,” “Today is the birthday of the world.” Chew on that for a while. Just repeat the words. The Hebrew literally means, “Today the world is pregnant.” Whoa!!! This mantra is pregnant with possibilities. Maybe it means that we are about to give birth to our future. Or maybe it harks back to the notion that the world is a living being, from which we are born – and that we need to care for our planet as we would care for a parent. Or maybe since olam also means “eternity,” it means that our world is eternally pregnant – and so are we – we are constantly in the process of gestation. Aside from what that would do for the pickle industry, it is a remarkable way to look at how we live.
So there you have three mantras t get you started, and that’s just off the top of my head. And I haven’t even gotten to God yet. Avinu Malkenu, or the Sh’ma, for instance, force us to confront our beliefs about what metaphor for divinity and holiness works best for us, about how we can listen attentively enough to hear that Still, Small Voice speaking to us. Oh yes, and there’s the shofar, whose mantra like soundings (100 blasts each day) can’t help but stir us form our lethargy.
Still bored? Here’s another suggestion:
Six Word Memoirs
Last week I asked my congregants to come up with Six Word Memoirs related to the High Holidays. Here’s what I’ve gotten so far:
Find beauty in everyone and everywhere!
I am grateful for each day!
I am fortunate to be Jewish!
Start each new day with love!
Rosh Hashanah. New calendar. When’s Passover?
Every day is a new day.
I came. I limped. I healed
Grandparents died, before I could ask.
Hope to do better next year?
Can I forgive myself? Maybe soon.
Your assignment for those moments of ennui: come up with six words of your own that encapsulates the High Holidays for you.
Thirty Six Questions
One more suggestion. A New York Times “Modern Love” article from last winter referred to a study that explores whether intimacy between two strangers can be enhanced by having them ask each other a specific series of personal questions. The 36 questions in the study are broken up into three sets, with each set intended to be more probing than the previous one. Here’s the article.
The idea is that mutual vulnerability fosters closeness. Our relationships with God and with our spiritual community also require the ability to be open, vulnerable and trusting. It’s very hard to do that among hundreds of people on the High Holidays – but that’s the goal. To help you out, I’ve adapted the 36 (double chai!) that could apply if, say, you came across God’s profile on Tinder. Which way would we swipe, to opt in or out of a relationship with God, Torah and the Jewish people? Would we opt in or out?
As part of your soul searching, take the time to ponder these questions (and make up some more). My emendations are in italics.
Given the choice of anyone in the world, whom would you want as a dinner guest? Would the dinner be kosher?
Would you like to be famous? In what way?
Before making a telephone call or reciting a prayer, do you ever rehearse what you are going to say? Why?
What would constitute a “perfect” day for you? And would any of it involve service to others?
When did you last sing to yourself? To someone else? Are you able to sing with the congregation unabashedly or are you reticent to add your voice to others’?
If you were able to live to the age of 90 and retain either the mind or body of a 30-year-old for the last 60 years of your life, which would you want? Or would you prefer to be 30 but have the wisdom of a 70 year old?
Do you have a secret hunch about how you will die? Are you more afraid of dying or of not having fully lived?
Name three things you and your partner appear to have in common. Name one thing all Jew have in common…is there one?
For what in your life do you feel most grateful?
If you could change anything about the way you were raised, what would it be?
Take four minutes and tell your partner your life story in as much detail as possible. During the silent Amida, come up with an elevator speech summarizing your entire life.
If you could wake up tomorrow having gained any one quality or ability, what would it be? How about one Jewish skill? Torah reading? Hebrew comprehension? Making fluffy matza balls?
If a crystal ball could tell you the truth about yourself, your life, the future or anything else, what would you want to know?
Is there something that you’ve dreamed of doing for a long time? Why haven’t you done it? Is going to Israel somewhere on that list?
What is the greatest accomplishment of your life?
What do you value most in a friendship?
What is your most treasured memory? And most treasured Jewish memory?
What is your most terrible memory? When have you felt most rejected by a the Jewish community or God and how has that impacted your life? And by the way, speaking on behalf of all rabbis, I’m sorry!
If you knew that in one year you would die suddenly, would you change anything about the way you are now living? Why?
What does friendship mean to you?
What roles do love and affection play in your life?
Alternate sharing something you consider a positive characteristic of your partner. Share a total of five items. What do you love most about Judaism?
How close and warm is your family? Do you feel your childhood was happier than most other people’s? Is your community your family? How can that happen if not?
How do you feel about your relationship with your mother? Not going there.
Make three true “we” statements each. For instance, “We are both(all) in this room feeling … “
Complete this sentence: “I wish I had someone with whom I could share … “
If you were going to become a close friend with your partner, please share what would be important for him or her to know. What would you add to the list of sins found in the machzor? What most applies to you?
Tell your partner what you like about them; be very honest this time, saying things that you might not say to someone you’ve just met.
Share with your partner an embarrassing moment in your life. Like the time you were suppo9sed to kiss the Torah but kissed the cantor instead!
When did you last cry in front of another person? By yourself? While praying?
Tell your partner something that you like about them already.
What, if anything, is too serious to be joked about? Do you cringe when people trivialize the Holocaust through humor or political agendas?
If you were to die this evening with no opportunity to communicate with anyone, what would you most regret not having told someone? Why haven’t you told them yet?
Your house, containing everything you own, catches fire. After saving your loved ones and pets, you have time to safely make a final dash to save any one item. What would it be? Why? What Jewish objects would you save?
Of all the people in your family, whose death would you find most disturbing? Why?
Share a personal problem and ask your partner’s advice on how he or she might handle it. Also, ask your partner to reflect back to you how you seem to be feeling about the problem you have chosen.
You can see that there are lots of avenues to a more fulfilling relationship with Judaism, God, your synagogue and the High Holidays.
Oh and one more thing: the sermons. Ultimately, all preachers are preaching to themselves, and if you happen to overhear, all the better! All I can say is that I’ve read them and edited them literally dozens of times thus far and I’m not bored yet! But if you are unmoved…or heaven forbid, bored, I apologize in advance, on behalf of myself or any rabbi you happen to hear.
So that’s my first lengthy sermon – on how not to be bored next week. The rest is up to you! Maybe we can all fight off boredom by standing and singing together, “Ennui Shall Overcome!”