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How to Put the High Back Into the High Holidays

September 13, 2012 By:
Zalman Schachter-Shalomi and Joel Segel
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For many of us, let's face it -- the upcoming High Holidays will be anything but a high. Oh, we'll pack every pew in the synagogues, dressed in our holiday best. We'll be there for hours, rising when told to, sinking thankfully back into our seats, reading responsively.

Many enjoy the communal aspect of it, the tunes they remember from childhood. Some feel genuine awe at the ceremony and out-of-worldly blast of the ram's horn.

But if Kol Nidre's pleas to wipe out any unfulfilled vows and promises teach us anything, it is to mean what we say. Does language like "Our Father, our King, we have sinned before You; our Father, our King, we have no King but You" really speak for us? How do we avoid the High Holidays trap of spending hour after hour reciting prayers we don't understand, in language we don't subscribe to, to a God we may not even believe in?

Can we find a way to enter into the experience more fully without putting our minds in the pawn shop and violating our Jewish compulsion for honesty?

One surprisingly simple and freeing solution begins with a distinction. Beliefs are the language of the mind. Prayer, on the other hand, begins in the heart -- not the muscle but the metaphor, the realm not of cardiologists but of poets. Real prayer -- davening, as we Jews used to say back in the old country -- is not a rational matter. It's a romance.

Prayer is the language of the heart because real prayer deals with need, with loneliness and sorrow, with thankfulness and joy, with fear and dread. "No God," the mind insists. But the heart, in its small, uncertain voice, cries, "Oh God! Omigod!" In that cry, if we can allow ourselves to hear it, lies the beginnings of prayer.

Now take that distinction a step further. The trek through the liturgy is in fact a journey through four distinct spheres of human experience. The Jewish prayer book, it turns out, is more in sync with modern beliefs than we might think.

Developmental psychologists now speak of multiple intelligences, distinguishing kinesthetic intelligence from musical ability, say, or logical reasoning from emotional aptitude. Kabbalah prefers to think of four parallel landscapes, each with its own symbolic language and imagery, and each finding expression in the prayer service.

To kabbalists, the reality we know is rooted in assiyah ("doing"), the world of the tangible, the physical. This is the realm of the morning blessings that launch our prayers, the ones that thank God for our creature comforts and physical abilities.

Assiyah, too, is the dimension in which our bodies take action, rising when the ark is open, bowing, swaying back and forth in the silent Amidah, even prostrating ourselves in the High Holidays Musaf service.

The beating heart of prayer is found in the world of yetsirah ("formation"), a section of psalms that follows the morning blessings and opens us to our emotions. The key word here is "Hallelujah!" and the key expression is song. Yetsirah is the home of what Martin Buber called our "I-thou" relationship with God. It is in yetsirah that we turn to the sacred Other, whatever we understand that to mean. But don't think about it too much. Sing! Your heart will understand.

The Barachu that follows takes us into the world of beriyah ("creation"), the realm of mind. The language here speaks of the heavenly orbs, of light and darkness, of the miracles of the universe. We are rising higher now. We marvel at creation, meditate upon it and begin to merge with it.

Finally, Hear O Israel, the Shema, and the silent Amidah take us into atzilut ("emanation"), the highest and most abstract of the four worlds. Atzilut is the realm of spirit. Its language thrives on mystery, contradictions and dissolution of boundaries.

Our prayers don't always "make sense" because making sense is not what we're here for. Our journeys through life are more complex than that. And so our duty to the Days of Awe, and to ourselves, doesn't end with procuring our tickets. We need more than just assigned seats and receipts that our synagogue dues are paid up. We want a ticket to transformation, a pass to the possibility that something in us feels genuinely moved.

As our synagogues open their doors to us, so may we open our own inner doors to multidimensional experiences. As the ushers show us to our seats, so let us find a seat for prayer in our hearts.

Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi and Joel Segel are the authors of Davening: A Guide to Meaningful Jewish Prayer, forthcoming from Jewish Lights

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