Under Pressure (Rosh Hashanah 2018)

Posted on September 9, 2018

by Rabbi Jordi Schuster Battis

Man.

The High Holy Days are really… grand.  They are beautiful. They are intense.

They are a lot of pressure.

They are a lot of pressure.

And, I don’t just mean that as a rabbi.

I mean, yes, as a rabbi there is plenty of pressure to go around,
of saying all this liturgy,
and leading the day,
and giving a wonderful sermon
—and, tonight, for me, with my parents here, in from California (hi!),
and my just meeting many of you for the first time.

But, even when I am not on the bimah on the High Holy Days.
Even before I went to rabbinical school.
The High Holy Days have always been a lot of pressure.

We’re supposed to get in all of these big feelings and all of this reflection and all of this repentance.

We’re supposed to sit here and think about an entire year’s worth of our own actions
and perform an accounting of every breath of our souls.

Right?

There was one year, when I was in my early twenties—

and I should mention that, fine, yes,
it was probably clear to anyone else who knew me
that I was going to go on to become a rabbi someday,
but I hadn’t given in yet—

One year, when I was in my early twenties I was in Jerusalem for the High Holy Days,
and on Yom Kippur, I went to services,
and I was so hungry for some kind of spiritual encounter.
I was ready for the liturgy to speak to me,
for the melodies to sing to me,
maybe even for God to say something to me.

And, I sat there and read along with the liturgy,
and I realized that nothing was speaking to me.

All I could see were words on the page telling me that
I must have done something wrong in the last year that I was supposed to be repenting for.
Images of God as a big king on a throne.
Images of people as sheep who just want a shepherd to tell them what to do.

I sat there and I argued with every word on the page:

This isn’t what I want the liturgy to say!

This isn’t how I can get to spiritual encounter!

This isn’t the God I want to believe in!

This isn’t how I reflect
or repent
or hear the voice of something Holy inside me.

For each sentence on the page, I argued back:
“Don’t say that!
I wish you’d say this instead.”

I spent the day fighting with each prayer in my head as the service went on,
telling the prayer book, the machzor, what I thought it should contain,
instead of what was actually on the page.

It was exhausting.

 

That night, after the holiday was over, I recounted the day with a friend.
Slowly, a ridiculous and “terrible” realization came to me.

In arguing with every word on the page,
I had ended up using the prayer book as a foil against which
to say the things I actually wanted to pray.

In arguing with every metaphor for God represented in the machzor’s pages,
I had ended up describing for myself the God I actually needed.

I had unwittingly evoked a God
who didn’t seem to speak to me during Yom Kippur itself
but who, after it was all done, was teasing me lovingly.

“Oh, honey,”
She was saying.
“I guess the holiday helped you do exactly what you were supposed to do after all.”

 

So, okay, the High Holy Days are a lot of pressure,
but sometimes they do do the thing they are supposed to do—

sometimes they do wake up a holy voice somewhere inside you,

or give you the chance to realize something that had never occurred to you before,

or egg you on just a little bit further to make a commitment it’s time to make.

That’s pressure,
but it’s the pressure of a hug,
of someone’s hands on your shoulders saying,
“I believe in you. You can do this.”

At their best, the High Holy Day, are a good kind of pressure.
Now, I don’t mean that we are all supposed to spend every High Holy Days
rewriting the machzor
or walking away with a new understanding of our own personal theology.

Even for me, that was mostly a one-time thing.

And, some other sermon,
we can have a conversation about what God is or isn’t for each of us anyway.

But, the fact remains that
these holidays are intended to be a time
of finding out what speaks to each of us, personally,
to figure out what we want to say in return, personally,
and to make a big mental note about what we want to carry forward from these days.

Whether it is

because of the machzor or despite the machzor;

because of the music, or against the music;

because we’re feeling something we can call “God,”
or because we don’t feel something we could ever call “God”;

because we’re together here,
or because, even sitting here with all of us together,
we are somehow feeling alone.

Noticing what we respond to
is a step toward creating our own text
to live our lives in conversation with.
Unlike other holidays in the Jewish year,
in the High Holy Days, there isn’t a big story outside of us that we’re we’re retelling and reliving over the course of the celebration.
We’ll read Torah tomorrow morning, yes, and on Yom Kippur,
but the Torah reading isn’t the story of the holiday itself.
It’s not meant to be an all-encompassing story for the holiday that we can absorb ourselves in and escape into.

It’s not like—

Chanukah, when we are retelling and reliving and interpreting the story of the Maccabees,

or Purim, when we are retelling and reliving and interpreting the story of Queen Esther,

or Passover, when we are retelling and reliving and interpreting the story of the Exodus from Egypt.

Instead, the story that we are supposed to retell and relive and interpret these holy days is
our own personal story, in conversation with the prayers and songs of our service.

We are the text.

Each of us is the story of our year that is past
and that is paving the way for our year that lies ahead.

 

In Jewish tradition, when we read a story,
we understand that the written word is incomplete.

It cannot be fully understood without interpretation.

The Torah’s stories and laws are just the bones.

The Torah does not say, for instance,

“Here is the reason that God chose to make light on the first day of creation and not to make the sun, moon, and stars until the fourth.”

It doesn’t say, “Here is what Eve felt when she first tasted that fruit.”

It sure doesn’t say, “Here’s how to make sense of these stories of creation in a time and era when we also know about the science of the Big Bang.”

So, the ancient rabbis engaged in the art and practice of midrash:
creating stories that fill in the missing pieces and links—
the gaps in the Torah’s text.

They told stories to explain why Abraham did what he did;
what was happening in Moses’s head;
why not, in traditional observance, to eat milk with meat.

The rabbinic stories often contradicted each other.

For instance,

The Torah does not say how old Isaac was at the time when his father bound him on the altar
(which we’ll read about on the second day of Rosh Hashanah)

In trying to fill in that gap in the text,
one rabbi might say he was 3 years old;
another might say he was 37.

Both answers, and others too, were considered okay.

Their opposing answers appear on the same page in our midrashic texts.

Each answer that they offered represented a story of its own that was meant
to illustrate and bring out a different possible nuance in the Torah’s great narrative.

The goal was not to figure out the one right answer to say
what the Torah really meant,
but to demonstrate and use the artistry possible in having
a multiplicity of possible frames and lenses for our most sacred tales.

So, in the face of, say, all of our different stories of Creation—

Creation in seven days;
Adam and Eve;
the Big Bang and evolution—
one rabbi today might say,
“These are different ways of telling the same thing”;
another might say,
“These stories are all metaphor and symbol for the emotion and relationships at the heart of human experience”;
and a third might say,

“Like God, we all have the power to create with our words;

like Eve we all have the power to defy, to desire, and to seek out knowledge;

like science teaches us, we all have the power to grow and change.”

 

Sometimes, all three of these rabbis might be the same rabbi.
All of them are using midrash:

giving interpretation to make new sense of their own knowledge and experience in conversation with the words on the page.

 

And, if on the High Holy Days, the story we are supposed to be interpreting is our own story

—if we are the text, in conversation with the text of the machzor—

then that means that it’s our job, too, to write midrashim on our own lives.

We are supposed engage in the exercise of looking at the text of our lives
the most sacred text of all
with different frames and through different lenses,
until we find the interpretation that offers us the nuance that
we want to be living this new year.

 

When we engage in conversation with
the prayers and songs of our High Holy Day services,
in conversation with our own sacred, holy lives,
we have the chance to refine our own beliefs, clarify our values, and work on smoothing our roughest edges.

What moments in the service do you love?

What images resonate?

Which melodies nourish your soul?

Which parts do you look forward to from year to year?

And, also:

What words make you chafe?

At what moments do you just wish you could take out your cell phone and start playing around and tune it all out?

Each of our reactions is significant:
each one is a clue about something in the text of our lives.

Maybe it’s a missing piece or link—
a gap in our text that needs a story,
or it’s a contradiction, or an inconsistency,
or maybe it’s a metaphor,
something resonant that means more than it appears.

Whatever it is, it is something that’s ready for our own midrash.
It’s a signal between us and our souls, us and God, us and the universe—

—however you label it—

That it’s time to look under and over and through those pieces that we are each responding to
and to come up with different interpretations of what they might mean,
to elaborate on the pieces we know and embellish those
to fill in the pieces we don’t.

That is when the machzor and these holidays are doing their best work,
and when we are using the Holy Days to do our best work.

My challenge to all of us this holiday is to find something to react to and to sit with that reaction until we figure out what it means.

That thing that you love in the service or that just rubs you the wrong way:

Why?

And what do you need to remember about that after these days?

And what does that compel you to do?

When each of us finds that, let us each make a big mental note.

Let us repeat it to ourselves every time we hear the shofar call.

Let us recount it to a friend—who may be a cantor, or a rabbi—
to see what we each realize in the retelling.

Let us feel that pressure from these days:

The pressure to react,

the pressure to remember,

and the loving pressure of the support of this community around us to help us do exactly what we are supposed to do.

Shanah tovah.