Monday, September 18, 2006

Rosh HaShana, Yom Kippur: Experience and Emotion

"...A Jew is not only supposed to know what Yahadut stands for and to have knowledge of Yahadut; he is also called upon to experience Yahadut, to live it, and to somehow engage in a romance with the Almighty. Knowing about Yahadut is not enough; it is a norm to be implemented and experienced. It is to be lived and enjoyed. It is a great drama which the yeled zekunim must act out after observing the av zaken.


But one trick I have not mastered. One thing I cannot do to perfection is to tell my students how I felt on Rosh Hashanah and Yom ha-Kippurim when I was their age. The emotions I experienced, and not what I knew about it. I knew a lot, and they know a lot. But what I felt on those days! How I lived it! I am unable to share with them what I experienced, for instance, when the shaliakh tzibbur [cantor] used to chant and sing: Veha-kohanim veha-am haomdim ba'azarah ["When the priests and the people who were standing in the Temple court"; from the Avodah, the procedure of the Temple service, which is recited as part of the Musaf of Yom Kippur, High Holiday Prayer Book, trans. Philip Birnbaum, p 816]. If you know the melody, you will agree that there is so much nostalgia, so much longing and melancholy in this tune, in the melody of Veha-kohanim veha-am haomdim ba-azarah. I felt as if I had been transferred in time and space into a different world. I felt that I was in the bet Hamikdash [Holy Temple]. How can I explain this to my students? I can tell them about it but I cannot pass on my experiences to them!

Or how can I pass on the emotion I felt on Kol Nidrei night when the congregation responded amen to the cfhanting of the Shehehyianu blessing. It is difficult to transfer experiences and not just concepts; to give over themes and not just numbers. To pass on feelings, to tell the story of both inner restlessness and serenity, to relate the narrative of joy and awe, of trepidation and at the same time equanimity in one's heart, one must not use words. Words cannot explain it. Instead an unusual medium must be utilized: silence. The melamed of old in my heder knew how to pass on his emotional acquisitions, his ecstatic experiences, and his mystical outlook on life. He knew how to pass this on to his pupils without saying a single word.

Of course these experiences can only be passed on in the fashion that one passes on a contagious illness. How do you communicate a disease? Through contact! And contact is the secret of passing on the experiences of Yahadut. The skill of somehow communicating with the soul of the person is not through the spoken word but through the art of silence.

However, it is very difficult. I have not entirely succeeded in passing on this part of Yahadut. But youre teachers in your highschool will. They will be more successful. They will arrange the rendezvous between the av zaken and the yeled zikunim.

~ Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik in 'The Rav: The World of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik' pages 178-179


Dear God,

This is a letter to describe to you my most personal and true feelings, the ideas that I cannot visualize when I am caught within the confines of four walls, when I am told that I should think about you, that I must envision you. It is at those times, when I stand in the synogague, that I am most apt to draw a blank, even though I try very hard to see you, the way I see you now, or during the moments when you are with me.

Whenever I am thinking, truly thinking, I think of you. My greatest flashes of inspiration are inspired by you; my appreciation of works, even works that deny your existence, is similarly inspired by you. You are in everything that is brilliant, that is thoughtful, that is damned and condemned. You are everywhere. There is nothing that is too small or too large for you, nothing over which you do not wield either power or feel compassion. You are aware of all things.

And when I see you, at the moment, when I see you as I type this, I imgaine you as someone loving, loving but judgmental. You expect things from me; you expect me to fulfill my potential, to be who I was born to be. You expect my submission, something which I have yet to give you. I hate the idea of submission. I like to resist. I like conflict, even. I hate to feel like my will is subservient to any other will, even mine.

The Rav writes of "absurd pride." He too suffered from it! Or so he writes. He claims that the way he was able to serve you was when he envisioned great masters like our forefathers, humbled and subservient before you. If such men could offer of themselves, cannot I? But I tell you that I have trouble doing it. I don't like to kneel; I don't like to be forced to bow.

And now is a time of self-assessment. Because now is the beginning of the year.

And I will tell you very plainly that I have not been entirely good. And that my sin stems from desire more than anything else, a great desire and lust for what I cannot have. And that at the same time that we are told to admit our sins before you I feel an urge to justify them, to explain myself, because I don't know if I would act differently in the same situation, and honestly, I cannot feel the regret and remorse that I ought to feel.

So let's not focus on what I should be feeling but on what I do feel.

I feel love. I feel love for you, God, and for my people, and really all the people that have touched my life. I'm thinking of my family, my friends, my teachers most especially (how I lament when I see what Rabbi Soloveitchik penned! How our teachers are supposed to convey the experience of Judaism, of walking with God, to us), my former classmates, the bloggers here in this community. Everyone.

I think beneath the masks we wear, the ways we act, the words we say, we are generally different. I know that I am. I am proud. I am infernally proud and very egotistical, and I've heard the stories asking what I have to be proud of and I pray you not to test me by taking accomplishments of mine away. But I know, I do know, that I am proud.

And I cannot feel regret for this pride, so I think that what you must want of me is to channel it, to use this confidence differently, to channel it in a direction that brings me close to you, to my own romance with the Almighty, as it were.

So God, if I were to walk with you, what would I say?

Would I tell you how beautiful I find the poems we read about you? About how we are glass in the hands of the glassblower, or clay in the hands of the potter? You are the artist, the craftsman, and we are your creations. While this ought to make us tremble, I also find it comforting, because, you see, I trust you, God.

It's scary to trust you. Because you can hurt me, and it seems like you have hurt us as a people so many times.

But I do trust you.

I wonder if it is a feeling that can be explained. Perhaps it is because of my family. Perhaps it is because of the books I read and the way they make me think, react, feel. I think it is because the highest form of man that I can envision is created by God but is partners with God, for it is our job, as it is Yours, to engage in creation. We are the Howard Roarks of our world, God, shunned by others but walking with you.

So what do I want to do? I want this letter to be my prayer.

Because I find it hard to pray in synogague.

Because when I am in synogague, all I can think about is how the air-conditioning is on too high, or what the person in front of me is doing. It's even more maddening when I know what I OUGHT to think about and what I should be thinking about.

And then there's the fact that Hebrew's really not my language. I don't feel like I can talk to you in Hebrew, like you can hear the words I want to say. I know English, and I want to talk to you in English, to praise you and speak to you and hear what you have to say to me.

So now it is a time for an evaluation of me and what I have done, and whether I deserve to live or die.

And I don't want to die.

It's not so much that I am scared of death, though perhaps that is wise, but because I feel like I am not finished yet. I have so much more to do. So many more tasks. I am not done, God, with the role you have given me to play, and until I have completed it, I cannot die.

Because we are all unique, and so what I have to say isn't the same as what anyone else has to say, and so I'm asking you God, no, I'm begging you to please let me live the next year through.

Because I don't want to die yet.

Not yet, not until I've done what I must.
And then, God, I will be fulfilled.

You know me, and you know that my intentions are good; my motives mostly pure. You know that I can be cross or irreverent or angry or irritated; that I can hate you and refuse to pray to you- as I have, as I still do-and that simultaneously I am involved with You, involved in a battle where I'm trying to fight you because I feel powerless before you. And I can't conceive of having no power.

And at the same time that I'm fighting you, I find you to be the most beautiful, irresistable force that is. Your Torah is perhaps the greatest gift you can give to us; your act of love. I delve into your words and I am enthralled, fascinated. I love the book you have given to me.

And yet I can't submit to you. I feel compelled to oppose you while I accept you, compelled to come near and draw back. Is this the dichotomy so often spoken of? I don't know. I think it is more like a war within me, until I can decide whether to humble myself and approach you, or to continue as I am.

But what I want you to know...what I think I'll be unable to say and express on Rosh HaShana and Yom how much I love you.

And that I wish you could give me, as you gave Solomon, a heart to know the difference between good and evil, a heart that would feel pain when I sinned, a heart that is akin to yours and attuned to your thoughts and feelings.

God, my God, my personal God and communal God, how can I express my love for you? How much I owe you. For the creation of the body you have given me, of my soul, of my love for English and for your own work, for everything that I am and all that is. I am indebted to you, God, and still I fight you. Perhaps one day it will become a joyous fight...

I want to stand before you in awe and trepidation, but I think, God, that my love wins out. Because when I view you it's almost like the Beauty and the Beast figure, the Beast who seems cruel and evil and awful but at the same time is truly the good figure. The one who is going to save Belle, save her even from her own bad decisions (like when she runs away from you, and is attacked by wolves.) And of course, the one who loves her.

We are compared to a bride and groom, God, united by love. And though you must separate from us in order to judge us on our merits and accomplishments, and inscribe us for life or death, I'm pleading with you to please remember us..and by that I mean all of us, and especially my classmates at North Shore Country Day, who have been kindest to your people, and your love, and to inscribe us all in the Book of Life.

Because you know that we all can change.

And because I believe in the future, a radiant golden future in which we do walk with you and in your paths and in your ways.

And if I must experience a frigid, freezing awe, a terrible fear of what is to come in order to reach that golden future...I will.

But I'd so much rather join hands with you and walk with you beneath the blossoms of our world, somewhere beyond the sun, somewhere beyond emotions; walk there in spirit because I do not want to die yet, but walk there all the same.

With you, God.
Because I love you.

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