Sports enthusiasts can be a little crazy. For example, I know someone who believes that if he’s not in his special chair, wearing his team’s hat and his special ratty team tee-shirt when the game begins, his team will probably lose.
There’s an old story about a man who came to his rabbi before Rosh Hashanah in a panic: “Rabbi I don’t know what to do. The Braves are in the playoffs on Kol Nidre night. How can I miss that game? I never miss a Braves game, let alone a playoff game.”
“Don’t worry,” the rabbi said, “that’s why we have DVR’s.”
“Thank goodness,” he said. “You mean I can record the services?!!”
Let’s not be too quick to condemn him. I have to say that there’s something admirable about his attitude. The High Holy Day services are as important to him as his favorite team—something I’m not sure I can say for everyone. Besides, when he watches the games he certainly prays a lot.
For many people Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur have become an ordeal. It’s something they have to do. And let’s face the truth: for some people the services are boring. As a result, they come late, leave early and spend a good part of the service day-dreaming or talking to the people around them. For a rabbi, this can be pretty disheartening. High Holy Day services can be daunting: the Hebrew is hard, the prayers are confusing, and the services are long! Rabbis spend hours preparing—and then wonder if anyone is listening.
Part of the problem is that we’ve turned religious services into a spectators sport. Someone once said that football is a sport in which 22 physically-fit men run around on a field while 70,000 people who need exercise watch. High Holy Day services can be looked as a sport in which a few people who know how to daven are watched by hundreds of people who don’t.
I don’t mean to suggest that rabbis don’t need the High Holy Days—they do—or that people don’t know how to daven—many do and others can read the English and sing along with transliterations! But if there’s a problem, it’s that too much of the action is taking place up here and not enough out there in the seats. Here are a few suggestions from my colleague Rabbi Mark Greenspan to help make the most of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur:
1st, when you come to services make noise. Services aren't supposed to be quiet. There should be a constant buzz in the sanctuary during services of people davening or singing along with the Baal Tefilah—the one leading the davening. It’s OK to talk to your neighbor if you’re “checking in.” Just don’t make it into a drawn out conversation.
I remember speaking in a black church many years ago when a beloved employee from Shearith Israel passed away. When I got up to speak I was shocked when members of his congregation shouted out while I was speaking. I would say something about the deceased and someone would yell out, “You tellin um, rabbi,” or, “Amen brother,” or, “Praise the Lrd.” As disconcerting as this was, there was something powerful about the idea that my sermon was a conversation and not a monologue. People were actively listening to what I had to say. So when you come to services, suggests Rabi Greenspan, make some noise.
The 2nd way to make the most of the holidays is to start before you get here. I realize that you’re already here but I don’t think it’s too late to do this. Before you return tomorrow night or Monday, find someone to whom you owe an apology and talk to them. Everybody has someone they owe an apology to. I suspect it will probably be someone at home.
I’m not talking about a generic apology either. There are too many of those in our society today—like the button you push on your phone when someone calls and you don’t want to take the call, so you press one of a menu of text responses that, in effect, says, “Sorry I can’t take the call right now.” Don’t make generic and formulaic apologies for the High Holy Days.
This has been a year of false apologies by politicians and public figures. We heard one just this past week when Hillary Clinton sort of apologized for violating State Department protocol with her emails. Don’t believe anyone who says: “I’m sorry but…” or “If my actions/words have offended you...” These are empty and disingenuous declarations—there’s no remorse, no attempt to change what was wrong. So be specific: “I messed up this year…I did XYZ…and I’m truly sorry. I’ll try harder in the year ahead.” So before tomorrow night, make a sincere apology to someone you care about.
Finally, I'd like teach you 5 words that will help make the most of these holy days: Da lifnei mi atta omed, “Know before whom you stand.” Every time you get distracted, every time you have a nasty thought, every time you get your get annoyed and are attempted to react, say: Da lifnei mi atta omed, “Know before whom you stand.” Repeat these words after me…“Know before whom you stand.”
These words are so important that they’re prominently displayed on the bima of many shules. Traditionally, they were placed on a placard in front of the lectern where the leader of the service would stand to help him concentrate during prayers. They were a reminder: “Don’t get distracted, know before whom you stand.”
These words can be helpful—not only here in shule—but out in the world. If every time you’re tempted to do something dishonest or hurtful—if you said to yourself—“Know before whom you stand”—I’m sure it would make a difference.
There’s the story of a wagon driver who was once taking a rabbi from town to town in Eastern Europe in the 19th century. They came upon an orchard and the driver said, “I’ll climb up one of the trees and get some apples for lunch.”
As soon as the driver climbed up in the tree, the rabbi yelled: “He’s watching! He’s watching!”
Nearly falling out of the tree, the driver scurried down and ran off fearful that the farmer would catch him. The Rabbi took the reins and continued on. Soon the rabbi caught up with the wagon driver who asked him, “Rabbi, why did you yell he’s watching? The farmer was nowhere to be found.”
The Rabbi said: “I wasn’t talking about the farmer. I said, [pointing upward] HE’S watching.”
My friends, as we begin the Yamim Noraim, the 10 Days of Awe from Rosh Hashanah through Yom Kippur, I hope you’ll come to shule early, stay late, and become engaged in the davening. Most of all, I hope you’ll take the Yamim Noraim home with you, so that they occur not 3 days a year but all year long. Unlike that baseball game, your presence here really makes a difference. You’re not a spectator on the High Holy Days, but a player. And what you do on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur and every day after can change your life as well as the world. Amen!
Rabbi Mark Hillel Kunis