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Prepare for the High Holiday Services

Some are late and rushed, some are early and organized, but all of us prepare before significant activities. We pack for vacation, study for exams, stretch before exercise, and save before purchases.

The High Holiday services are activities packed with significance. Whether you believe that you are inscribed in a Heavenly “Book of Life” or not, the quality of our self-examination on these days affects our relationship with our G-d, families, co-workers, and communities in the year to come.

So how shall we get ready?

The alternator which kicks the machinery of personal prayer into action is Kavannah. Kavannah is a Hebrew word whose root means to strengthen or to direct. It refers to the meaning, the aim of the prayer and also to the sincerity and clarity of his/her intention.

To foster Kavannah, there are spiritual practices which we can take on before, and as we enter the Sanctuary on these Awesome Days:

In the days before Rosh Hashanah, spend some quiet time reflecting: Ideally, what would I like to get out of the service this year? From the joys and struggles of this past year, do I have any new questions about life? Is there an issue I’d like help resolving? Do I want to pray for a friend who is sick, a child who is confused, for victims of floods and hurricanes or for the wisdom and courage of our President, legislators, and judges? Is there a physical place within the Sanctuary that will help me in my davenen (prayer)? It will help to write these thoughts out, and keep them with you in Shul as a guide for your devotions. That way, you will remain personally relevant to the service.

Rosh Hashanah morning: In ancient Israel, the kohanim/priests could only enter the Mishkan/tabernacle after washing their hands and their feet. Over the centuries, this custom gained traction in broader segments of our people and outside of our faith. In many traditional Synagogues in pre-Holocaust Eastern Europe, worshippers upon entering would stop at a basin for a ritual washing of the hands with the blessing “al n’tilat yada’yim”, praising G-d for sanctifying us with the Mitzvah of washing hands. The Catholic church, also fond of this ancient Jewish ritual, installed a font with holy water at the entrance to their Sanctuary, where worshippers dipped their fingers and then made a sign of the cross with the water as they sprinkled it on themselves.

Try this: On Rosh Hashanah morning, bring a bottle with some water, along with a paper towel, to Shul. Before you enter the building, go to the side of the front steps, and if you have not already said so earlier pray,

Modeh ani l’fanecha,
Melech Chai v’Kayam, she’he’che’zarta bi nishmati b’chemla rabah emu’na’techa

“I am thankful to You,
my Living and Eternal G-d,
for returning my soul to me this day in Your great mercy.”

Pour over your left hand, then your right, three times. Spend a moment imagining the spiritual possibilities of the coming day. (Dispose of towels and recycle any plastic in the building, responsibly).

Be’veit Elohim n’ha’lech b’ragesh”
“We come into G-d’s house with feeling”
(Psalm 55:15)

G-d’s presence is especially felt in the Sanctuary, so enter with quiet, light footsteps. Stop at the door for a moment and take in the majesty, the quiet, the after glow of those prayers which have been said for generations in this space. Please do not enter noisily or in any other way which would undermine your own focus and disturb others.

Recite:

Mah tovu ohalecha Ya’akov,
Mish’k’notecha Yisrael”

“How lovely are your dwellings, people of Jacob, your Sanctuaries, people of Israel!”
(found in our Machzor/Prayer Book, page 34).

Don your Tallit/prayer shawl, with the blessing which is also on page 34, along with some lovely meditations. Then for a minute or two drape the Tallit around your head and body, creating a private space to slow yourself down even more, focus, and continue to soften your heart as you enter the prayer experience.

Choosing a seat is important and consequential. If you have davened in our Sanctuary before, you may want to sit where you have in prior years. Keva (fixity) breeds Kavannah (intention). In any event try to find a space where you sense you may find special Kirvat Elohim, closeness to G-d. Don’t sit too far away from others. Kavannah is contagious and the insights that you will have if you are feeling part of the community are deeper than if you feel isolated. When people sit closer together, their hearts also join together. If you are new or unschooled in Jewish prayer you may want to sit near people who look like they know what they are doing. You can ask them directly for help, or just get into their rhythms as the service progress. You don’t need to know Hebrew. You can daven even in English with the traditional sing song chant, and there are also non-Hebraic ways to contribute, such as swaying, bowing, answering “Amen” heartily, chiming in with the ai’yai’yai wordless chants, etc. In fact, as you get into it, don’t be surprised if others pick up on your kavannah and start to align with you!

Don’t be shy about breaking the ice. It’s fine to go over to someone and say “I’m new here. Can you tell me what page we’re on?” And if you’re a vatik/veteran, open your knowledge pool and your heart to newcomers. “Excuse me, but we actually don’t use that book until later. Can I help you? Would you like to join my husband and me?”

Davenen, Jewish prayer, is a very horizontal experience, shared by men and women, each with the same spiritual potential. (The height and verticality of our Sanctuary is a holdover from its original construction as a Church, not a Jewish tradition). So look around and see who’s there. Especially if you’ve been coming to Kane Street a lot, it is likely that you have judgments, positive and negative, about people. If you’re new, you’ll likely be struck by some people who seem attractive and optimistic, and others who are crestfallen and withdrawn. Here, a teenager is bored; there, a toddler is squirming. Try to put judgments aside and if you can’t ask G-d for help in doing so.

A beautiful custom from the Lurianic liturgy at the beginning of prayer is to look around the Congregation and recite “Hineni muchan um’zuman, I am now ready and called upon to fulfill the Mitzvah of my Creator as it is written, V’ahavta L’rei’acha Kamocha, you shall love your neighbor as yourself”. From several stories in Torah, we learn that one way to get over grudges is to pray for those toward whom you are resentful. So look around and offer a prayer that everyone today should be moved and enlightened by the service.

Don’t forget the Rabbi, Cantor and other prayer leaders! The relationship between the prayer leaders and the Congregation may not be a completely scientific, left brain, predictable one, but I can tell you unequivocally that your intention towards those who lead is powerful. After all, we are your sh’lichim, agents/channels, or as Rabbinic tradition imagines, K’lei Kodesh, sacred instruments. So once you’re seated, and after you’ve surveyed the Congregation, look up at the Bimah and beam your good wishes and hopes up there. Pray that the Cantor will be a good Sha’liach for your needs and desires. Offer a prayer that the Rabbi will say words that will touch upon something with which you are struggling.

May we share Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur in heartfelt and moving davenen together, embraced by the Sh’chinah, G-d’ s Presence, and strengthened by the efforts and sincerity of one another.

Shana Tova

Rabbi Weintraub

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