Editor’s note: while High Holidays are nowhere near our calendar right now, this old piece is important because it showcases what Purim means, as well as some timely advice for Jews who are unaffiliated.
Looking ahead toward the High Holidays, I imagine many Jews are considering (and perhaps dreading) what is – for them – a rare visit to synagogue. Arriving to find a large, anxious and somewhat impatient crowd (and on Yom Kippur add in “cranky from lack of food”), the entire experience justifies why one would want to stay away as much as possible.
If that’s your experience, then take my advice and do yourself a favor.
How can I say that? Isn’t it a sin to tell another Jew NOT to attend synagogue on the holiest days of the year? Stick with me, because I have a nefarious ulterior motive.
As you fight your way to an unfamiliar seat, I’ll be in that same crowd with you. I will be looking at the unfamiliar faces this year and feeling sorry for the experience they (ie: you) are having.
Trapped in a room where no amount of air conditioning could combat the heat of hundreds of bodies, sitting (and standing, and sitting again over and over seemingly without end or reason) through a service that may or may not be familiar, reading liturgy that is often humbling if not downright accusatory (“we have sinned” and “we are not worthy”). It’s easily enough to send anyone out of the building and straight to the nearest house of pancakes.
I want to stop the service for just a minute, and explain to the beleaguered visitors that on most weeks, there is room enough for people to change seats during the service so they can sit nearer (or further) from the action, or to just sit with friends and enjoy their closeness during prayer; On most Shabbats, the service clips along and the text is one of unbridled joy and peace and renewal; During the year, there is a “relaxed formality” in the room, where we are cognizant of the prayers we are saying, but laid back about kids coming and going, people coming in wearing shorts or sandals, and so on.
But it’s Rosh Hashana/Yom Kippur. There is no realistic way to do that. I wonder if it would help even if I could.
I am reminded, however, of a quote by Rabbi Shimon Apisdorf, in his book “The One Hour Purim Primer.”.
The upshot is: if you are going to be a twice a year Jew, please please PLEASE make those two times a year be Purim and Simchat Torah. Come when there is joy, and celebration; when you are likely to walk away with a positive experience that will make you want to return more often.
“For Jewish kids whose parents only take them to synagogue twice a year, I would like to cast a vote in favor of those two days being Purim and Simchat Torah, not Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. When children – and adults – immerse themselves in the celebration of Purim one of the most important lessons they learn is that Jewish life incorporates the gamut of human emotional experience. Singing and dancing, costumes, fun and all around merrymaking are as integral to Judaism as charity, prayer and fasting. “
You can read the quote in its original context here.
(My nefarious ulterior motive exposed:) I want you to come at a time when you have such an amazing, engaging, interactive experience that you will WANT to come back again. And by the time next year rolls around and the High Holidays are upon us, you too will know that these two moments in time are not emblematic of the entire year. At that point you will understand that there is a beautiful rhythm – each point on the calendar flowing with unique levels of emotion, spirituality and effort; where some days (like Yom Kippur) are long and intense and require mental preparation. But others are so easy and fast that you feel a pang of regret when they are over. I want you to have a chance to see both ends of that spectrum, and everything in-between.
So if you are planning to be a “twice a year Jew“, please mark your calendars and I’ll plan to see you on the nights of October 20 (Simchat Torah) and March 7 (Purim). You can find me at the door, wearing the chicken costume (on Purim, at least) and pointing newcomers toward the cookies, schnaps and dancing.
(originally posted on The EdibleTorah)