It was not hard to take a back seat to my own spiritual growth.
As a youngster, I dutifully attended High Holiday services but felt that it was a pretty boring endeavor. The overwhelming feeling of formality blocked any emotional response on my part. The hazzan (cantor) chanted in an operatic voice, sometimes so dramatically, that it was actually jarring.
Synagogue was an ‘event’ that I was attending. There were all the trappings of a Broadway show: everyone was dressed up, there were ‘ticket takers’, ushers, and even assigned seats. Eyes faced front, and of course there was no talking or stirring.
Reading the list of sins that everyone was asking forgiveness for, did not apply to me. I knew that I didn’t steal or commit any major crimes, so I was even disconnected from my purpose in being there.
As I got older, things did not change too much and I can’t say that I matured spiritually. Again, I was hoping to “feel something” from just sitting in synagogue. After all, I was where I was supposed to be, doing what God seemed to expect of me by fulfilling my part of the equation. I am not sure if I felt a sense of awe though what I did feel was a measure of comfort in listening to familiar melodies.
No one taught me enough about the prayers or their purpose for me to gain any meaning out of the experience. Sure, I knew how to repeat some of the words but never learned what they meant or their relevance to my life. No one talked about a relationship with God. “He” was there, I was here. That was that.
I don’t blame my Hebrew school or teachers, because really, was it possible to learn all that much in a six-hour a week enterprise?
I intended this to be a short post so I will cut to the part that had the most impact on me. It was learning that I was in charge of my own experience. I know that seems obvious, but it took me awhile to understand that I had to make the first move. God was interested in an ongoing relationship, not in my trying to connect in a one time event.
No service was going to ‘make me more spiritual’ or help me feel connected to the Jewish community. There is a deep and rich experience that is at the core of communal prayer. But I didn’t experience that, not then. I needed to make the effort to reach out and go beyond my self, my ego. How engaged I would be was my responsibility.
As it turns out, that’s what is supposed to happen:
קָרוב ה’ לְכָל קרְאָיו. לְכל אֲשֶׁר יִקְרָאֻהוּ בֶאֱמֶת:
Karov Ado’shem L’chol Kar’av. L’chol Asher Yikr’u B’emet.
God is close to all who call out [to God] —to all who call with sincerity. [P’sukei D’zimra, Ashrei]
For sure, there are tools we can use to help us focus our thoughts and be present, and I will share some of those in future posts.
Learning about prayer is a helpful prerequisite. Knowing Hebrew is an asset, but for now, pre-Rosh Hashanah, call out to the One who needs to know you’re there.
If you are interested in pursuing any of the ideas above or other engagement strategies, please connect with me [ruthschapira.com].