According to the Talmud, we are taught that there is a special blessing one is supposed to say when one sees a large gathering of Jews: “Baruch chacham harazim” – “blessed is God who knows all secrets.” The Talmud goes on to explain the rationale behind these words: In a great multitude of people whose bodies and minds are all different, only God can know what each of us is really thinking.
This blessing has been on my mind a lot recently – after all, when can we expect to see as many Jews coming together as we do on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur? There is certainly something special, and worthy of blessing, in seeing sanctuaries filled to capacity and friendly faces we may see only once a year. (Don’t count on actually getting to hear this blessing said however; a large group is understood to mean 600,000!) But as the congregational leader of Ahavas Achim in Newburyport, preparing to stand up before a room full of diverse people, I can’t help but to wonder what each of us is holding onto inside.
I’m not talking about secrets; as the blessing implies, those are between you and your Maker. I wonder what we’re thinking about as we sit in the pews surrounded by friends and family on these special days. Tuning out the mundane distractions can be hard enough. School just started, you took the day off from work to be there, football season is underway – even as we take these days to reflect on our actions, our lives don’t necessarily stop to let us take a step back. And if we do manage to focus on being in the room and being present with our Jewish community, a whole host of other dilemmas may pop up.
Over the past year, life as an American Jew has not gotten easier. We face political pressure on all sides, both within the American system and as we think about our relationship with Israel. As comfortable as I feel at our shul in Newburyport, we’ve all been rattled by tragic events that have taken place in synagogues since last Rosh Hashanah. Most critically, I feel we have lost the ability to constructively relate to one another over our differences. Even among friends, I don’t see folks who disagree with each other try to resolve those differences or get to a place of respectful disagreement – either we avoid controversial issues entirely or we shout over each other without listening.
On the surface, the High Holiday liturgy may seem to exacerbate the problem. At a time when we’re supposed to be taking account for our actions and thoughts, how are we supposed to take inspiration from reading about the high priest? How do we wind up feeling about ourselves communally when we have such a heavy focus on “for the sins which we have sinned before you …”?
My first solution is an obvious one – the shofar. The shofar is the great silencer, both internally and externally. I have found that when the shofar is blasting, not only is the room otherwise silent, but whatever else I was thinking about is instantaneously, if momentarily, erased. Use these fleeting moments as a reset, a moment when you can experience the unity in the room and remember that you can and should relate to the human experience around you.
My second suggestion involves a substitution. Rabbi Avi Weiss, founder of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah in New York, has written a beautiful list of positive confessions, following the familiar Hebrew A-Z acrostic, going from Ahavnu (we have loved) to Tikanu (we have fixed). Reminding ourselves of the good we have done and can do, as individuals, but especially as a Jewish community, is what should be bringing us together not only on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, but throughout the rest of the year. In doing so, maybe we can utilize what unites us as a Jewish community – our shared positive impact on the world – to communicate lovingly and constructively with one another as we begin the new year.
Alex Matthews is the spiritual leader of Congregation Ahavas Achim in Newburyport.