The High Holy Days are a time for contemplation, a time to give thanks, to repent for the wrongs of the past year and seek forgiveness from those you may have hurt and especially from God.
But what if you're not feeling either grateful or repentant? What if the past year has been fraught with difficulties, loss, illness, even pain? Whether you blame fate or your enemies or even a Higher Power, you may find yourself dreading worship services this year and contemplating ways to get out of attending entirely.
For those who are genuinely going through a spiritual slump or those who simply can't face another seemingly purposeless High Holiday season, here are some suggestions to putting the meaning back into the mitzvah.
Put the Past in Perspective
Part of what may be contributing to your negative feelings surrounding the holidays is what Rabbi Stewart Vogel, rabbi of Temple Aliyah in Woodland Hills and co-author of The New York Times bestseller "The Ten Commandments: The Significance of God's Laws in Everyday Life," calls "the nostalgia factor."
"It's what we [rabbis] have to look at first: how do these days play out in the memories of people? What do they remember from their childhoods? That's the so-called baggage they bring in," he said. "We can help them with their comfort with the liturgy, with Hebrew versus English prayer, especially if they remember some of the prayers already and are comfortable in synagogue. But if they have memories of the holidays as the longest, most boring and drawn-out experience of their lives, where they understood nothing of what was going on around them, that is going to have an effect."
If you suspect the nostalgia factor, whether positive or negative, may be part of your present problem, perhaps it is time to create new memories. If you have always gone over to your parent's home for Rosh Hashana dinner, invite them over, instead. If you are still attending the same shul that you did as a child, try a different one.
Even synagogues have to shake things up once in a while to keep services meaningful, Vogel said. "Over the last few years, we've instituted this tradition where at the end of Yom Kippur we open up the ark and allow people to come up [on the bimah] for personal prayers," he said. "It has transformed our service into a drama of engaging God at a very personal level."
Do Your Homework
For the reluctant shul-goer, advance preparation can make a significant difference in getting through the holidays. Reading texts such as "The Jewish Holidays" by Michael Strassfeld or Shimon Apisdorf's "Rosh Hashanah Yom Kippur Survival Kit" can help put one in the right frame of mind. The latter book contains a number of exercises and anecdotes to make the experience of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur more personal. If you need your spiritual vitamins in smaller doses, Web sites like those of Aish HaTorah (www.aish.com), Chabad (www.chabad.org) or Project Genesis (www.roshhashanah.torah.org) all contain inspirational articles aimed at reaching the mind and rousing the spirit.
Try Another Route
For some people, a quick review of key traditions or discovering a new insight into the holidays is enough to get their motors running. However, if you're a more tactile person and all the navel-gazing associated with Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur makes you want to book yourself on the next plane to Bora Bora, try reconnecting through other paths. Bake a honey cake -- get lost in the aroma of the spices, the feel of mixing the ingredients and the rich taste of the completed work. Feel grateful to have the means and the ability to partake of such bounty (and maybe prepare an extra loaf for someone who does not). Or take advantage of our Southern California location with a walk on the beach. Barefoot, if you dare. Let the sounds of the ocean help you to remember your connection to the creation.
Take a Giant Leap
Maybe what needs changing isn't just our perspective, it's our entire way of relating to God, according to rabbi and author Shimon Apisdorf.
"Oftentimes we get stuck in a relatively undeveloped relationship with God," he explained in a recent interview. "We have this picture in our mind of a Big Daddy in the sky whom we ask, and He is there to provide. To see the totality of our relationship in those terms is missing a broad concept. The question to ask is, what if God knows better than I what is good for me? What if God is trying to help me grow, to become a richer or deeper person by giving me these challenges? If we just step out of our feelings of being upset and tried a different hat and asked, What if He know more about me than I even know myself? ... Just asking that question may give us a whole different way of relating."
Give Your Expectations a Break
Sometimes you just have to trust the process.
"Spiritual ups and downs are just like ups and downs in other areas of life," said Rabbi Don Goor of Temple Judea. "There's so many things we question. But I think the questions help because, after you ask, if you're really committed to getting an answer then your answers will be stronger and deeper."
Goor said part of the problem today is unrealistic expectations of what the High Holy Days can provide. "I think some people dread it because it is not easy, and it's not meant to be easy. We're in a world where we want everything done fast. But the reality is that there is no 'instant spirituality.' To have it work, you've got to give it time."
Patience, a different perspective and the willingness to include nontraditional ways of celebrating can all help improve your High Holiday experience. Above all, Apisdorf said, if you want to have a meaningful Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, you've got to be proactive.
"If I had to go to a synagogue where the prayer book was written in Chinese and the ritual taking place reflected a culture I had never encountered before, it might be an interesting experience once, twice maybe. But 27 times?" said Apisdorf. "It's not realistic to expect from people who are not used to Jewish approaches to spirituality to come in cold, open up a book and feel this instant connection.
"You've got to do something. Go to a Jewish bookstore and spend some time looking at what's on the shelf. Ask for help. There are adult education classes going on in every city; call one up and say 'Hi, I'm Pam and I hate Rosh Hashana. Is there anything you can do to help me?'"
"For over 2,000 years, Jews have found profound inspiration from their heritage. If people make the effort, there is always something there to be discovered," Apisdorf said.