It’s difficult to imagine a more unexpected source of insight about the upcoming holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur than David Byrne, the former lead singer of the iconic 80’s rock band The Talking Heads. In his book, “How Music Works,” Byrne highlights the significant “experience of music” prior to the invention of sound recording in the late 19th century. Before the phonograph-through-Spotify, music was experienced only when it was played live, heard in-the-moment, an ephemeral (and likely somewhat infrequent) event. He suggests that “… this evanescence helps focus our attention … we listen more closely when we know we only have one chance, one fleeting moment to grasp something, and as a result our enjoyment is deepened.”
The same could be said of the High Holiday experience … (although “enjoyment” is not exactly the goal of these holidays!). Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur arrive only on their special days each year, with their own prayers and unique melodies; with singular customs (shofar blowing, taschlich, fasting etc.), mood and significance; and for many Jews these holidays are among the singular experiences of communal prayer in the synagogue for the whole year.
Our attention is focused on these days, during this season, like it is in no other way the rest of the year. These are the days we devote to our spirits, to the intimate consideration of the meaning and quality of our lives, and in which we take a step back to peer without blinders at the state of the world and at our place and responsibility within it.
Says Byrne: “You can’t touch music – it exists only at the moment it is being apprehended – and yet it can profoundly alter how we view the world and our place in it.” So too, these holidays are designed to shake us to our core. The shofar ‘wakes’ us up to the existential reality of our lives; the fasting attempts to ‘afflict our souls’ with the honest self-awareness and presence we need to return to our true best selves, empowering us to modify our habits and behavior.
By way of illustration, let’s consider the dramatic experience of the unataneh tokef prayer. Notably, its recitation comes towards the end of the service when the praying person is either well entranced in prayer, swirling at a spiritual high, or phenomenally bored and distracted by the lengthy service already endured.
The Ark is opened. The congregation rises. The melody is serious, humbled, and fearful: “Let us speak of the sacred power of this day – profound and awe-inspiring.” What is so frightful? We acknowledge a reality in which we can say to God: “You recall all that is forgotten, and will open the Book of Remembrance, which speaks for itself … for our own hands have signed the page.”
Getting swept up in the words is nearly unavoidable:
On Rosh Hashanah it is inscribed,
And on Yom Kippur it is sealed …
Who shall live and who shall die …
Who by water and who by fire,
Who by sword and who by beast …
Who by earthquake and who by plague …
Who will be serene and who disturbed
Who tranquil and who tormented …
With a sense of relief, we read the concluding line:
But repentance, prayer and tzedakah lift the severity of the decree.
In the hope of inspiring you to take advantage of the existential intensity that this year’s High Holidays offer – an intensity highlighted by last year’s services juxtaposed with this year’s, and underscored by the impossibility of self-delusion about the fate that can befall us – I want to share the following insight by my teacher Rabbi Benjamin Hollander z”l:
“In the prayers of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, the entire congregation prays together: ‘U-teshuvah u-tefilah u-tzedakah ma’ avirin et ro’a ha-gezerah, Repentance, prayer and charity lift the severity of the decree.’
Notice that we do not pray that these three things will cancel the bad decree altogether, but only that the severity, or the evil, of the decree should be removed. It appears that a severe decree cannot be cancelled despite our complete repentance, sincere prayer, and tzedakah that comes from the heart and goes to the heart. If so, then what does ‘remove [or lift] the severity, or the evil, of the decree’ mean?
It could be that this refers to the impact of the decree upon us – that through our repentance, prayer, and tzedakah we gain perspective, perhaps even the ability to see positive aspects within the decree – even if the good contained within it is quite minimal – in order that we learn from it for the future and are strengthened by it.
Repentance, prayer, and acts of tzedakah train us to respond with the best of who we are and can be.
Rabbi Michael Schwartz is the spiritual leader of Temple Sinai of Marblehead.