As Rosh HaShanah quickly approaches, I hear many of my rabbinic friends and colleagues, as well as many lay-leaders, shift their panic, pressure and urgency into high gear. After all, these are the Big Days, our very own Broadway Premieres! Leading services, sounding the shofar or presenting sermons, for many this is our once-yearly time in the spotlight. We so want to excel–we owe it to our congregations and to ourselves to break all the records with this year’s performance!
I also remember back to when my children were little. Along with all of our friends, we’d start worrying how we were going to occupy and amuse our children during the seemingly interminably long services. Not only did we want them to be happy, we wanted to avoid embarrassment and distraction of bored, unruly kids! And throughout the services, no matter how engaging and inspiring they were, there was always a sense of dread, of impending disaster, “What if my kid becomes the next disturbance?”
Then there’s the emphasis on Tshuva, which is often badly translated with the single word, Repentance. Yes, this is the ikkar, the root and theme of the season and, of course, we want to learn from past failures in order to do better in the future, but it’s so easy for this activity to degenerate into self-hate.
Performance anxiety, insecurity about our parenting skills (don’t we want to both be and to present ourselves as the IDEAL parents?) and self-loathing. Not a great recipe.
It’s often hard to remember that not only Rosh HaShanah, but Yom Kippur, perhaps the most serious day of the Jewish year, are repeatedly referred to as חגים, Chaggim, Holidays. Even though we don’t eat, drink or indulge in other pleasures on Yom Kippur, we’re still obligated to fulfill to the mitzva of Simchat Yom Tov, Enjoying the Good Day.
When I was younger, living in Jerusalem, I remember my profound sense of disdain for the Chilonim, the secular Jews, who, rather than spending these days in synagogue, would have parties, go to the beach and otherwise focus on having fun. While I’m still vitally convinced that all Jews can potentially benefit from the rituals, liturgy and yes, even the restrictions of these days, I no longer can say that these people had it 100% wrong. Maybe not even 50% wrong. In the midst of their decidedly non-halachic observance of these holidays, they had retained and preserved an important essence that is all too often lost among the more piously-observant.
I remember Rabbi Twersi zt”l saying that the “hardest mitzva in the book” was Simchat Yom Tov. Can anyone imagine 24 or 48 hours of not allowing ourselves to feel anger, anxiety, frustration? And even if we can manage that, it only gets us all the way from negative territory to zero.
Let’s remember, even when we’re feeling the greatest pressure and anxiety, let our enjoyment rise to the top.