September 4, 2003
Giving Meaning to Life
In the movie, "Oh God! Book II," a little girl searches for God (alias the late George Burns). She looks for the Divine in every house of worship in her city. When she is about to give up hope, God appears.
She asks God, "Where have you been, God? I need you. I looked in every sanctuary in the city trying to find you."
God responds, "Why did you look there? People only show up in those places three times a year."
Both Christians and Jews laughed at this line. Just as devout Christians often complain about people who only go to church on Christmas and Easter, we Jews often complain about people who only show up at the synagogue on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.
Congregation Eilat, my synagogue in Mission Viejo, has a membership of about 300 families, representing about 900 people. Like most Jewish congregations, only a small fraction of its members regularly attend weekly synagogue services.
On a Friday evening or Saturday morning, between 50 and 200 members of the congregation will attend Shabbat services. The number fluctuates, depending on whether a life-cycle event, like a bar or bat mitzvah, takes place. Then, in the fall, on the holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, a crowd, sometimes in excess of 1,000 people will show up.
Close to 100 percent of the members will take time off from work and school in order to attend High Holiday services. Most other Jewish people who live in our area, who are unaffiliated with a synagogue, will also find time to visit our congregation and attend these two synagogue services.
This phenomenon is not unique to South Orange County. It is virtually a universal norm in synagogues throughout the world. Why do they come? Why do Jewish people who usually refrain from entering a synagogue choose to worship at these two particular services?
Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are separated on the Jewish calendar by a mere 10 days. They are two of the most adult and, hence, two of the least fun holidays to observe.
Unlike Chanukah and Passover, neither holy day includes a narrative that captures a person's attention and imagination. In comparison to the two Jewish festivals of freedom, neither autumn holiday is particularly rich in ritual.
On Rosh Hashanah, we eat apples dipped in honey as a symbolic sign of the new year. We wish family and friends a "good sweet year." And, during a very long synagogue service, we hear a shofar -- a ram's horn -- blown as a call to do repentance.
Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, features an even longer synagogue service than Rosh Hashanah. Its observance is characterized by what we abstain from doing rather than rituals we perform.
For over a 24-hour period, we fast and refrain from wearing perfume, jewelry, leather clothing and other items considered luxury products. Sexual encounters of any kind are forbidden.
With the exception of sleep on Yom Kippur, the primary means of involving ourselves in the holiday is spending most of a 24-hour period in synagogue, praying to God and asking the Divine for forgiveness.
Before these two holidays, we are supposed to engage in teshuvah -- a process of deep introspection in which we admit our individual mistakes, go to the people that we knowingly (or unknowingly) have harmed and ask for forgiveness.
Then, after going through this gut-wrenching process, we are supposed to enter the synagogue on the High Holidays in order to ask God for forgiveness and to request from the Divine that our individual names be written in the Book of Life for the coming year.
Martin Cohen, a former rabbi at Congregation Eilat and teacher at Tarbut V'Torah, describes Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur in his book, "Travels on the Private Zodiac: Reflections on Jewish Life, Ritual, and Spirituality," as "seasons of being taken seriously."
Cohen writes, "Most people feel marginalized in most areas of their lives. They work for businesses that could easily exist without them. They pay taxes to municipalities that would be able to pick up the trash without receiving their individual tax dollars. They vote in elections ... [with the exception of the most recent presidential election in Florida] ... that would not have had a different outcome if they themselves had cast their vote differently."
"The most respect they get from anybody comes from retailers anxious to sell them something and the more expensive the item, the more fawning attention [and the less they like it]," he continues. "In every measurable way we can consider the lives we lead, we do not count. And our actions do not count. And we ourselves do not count for much ... just ask yourself precisely what impact your death is going to have in the world...."
"And so they come, one Jew at time, through the doors of the sanctuary on the High Holidays," Cohen writes. "Not to party or to make merry, not to dance or to laugh, but to count for something. To be taken seriously. To believe, even for a few short hours, that their deeds are profoundly important, that their actions have consequences, that their shortcomings damage the world, that their sins are rips and tears in the fabric of being."
They want to believe, as Cohen emphasizes, that their lives matter not only in the eyes of God but in their own eyes as well.
Elliot Fein teaches Jewish religious studies at the Tarbut V'Torah Community School in Irvine.