We are just a couple weeks away from ushering in another new year, 5776. These Yamim Nora’im (Days of Awe) will be my fifth with the congregation and I, as each year, look forward to our sacred time together.
So much that has occurred during the past year – the terror threat of ISIS, or Daesh, streams of Middle Eastern refugees, continuing Israeli tensions, a likely change in Western relationships with Iran’s Shiite theocracy, the Greek financial crisis, earthquakes and other natural disasters. Elections at home highlighted worries over immigration.
For Belsize Square Synagogue, there were more triumphs than not – increased membership and continued enthusiasm for our beloved congregation and its activities, with celebrations galore and glorious musical offerings from our multi-talented members, young and old.
The challenges remain the same: enhancing Jewish identity, raising educational levels, offering a vital home for our youth, developing leadership and new volunteers, and never taking our future for granted.
We may approach the holidays with our usual presumptions but there are ways we can improve. For many the holidays are an ordeal, attendance something we “have to do”, services boring and prayers written in a time hard to relate to. We are unaware of the symphony, history and moral genius of the liturgy. We come late, leave early and let our minds wander or talk to our neighbours.
Despite the regular assumption that I must be disheartened by the lack of attention, I am fully aware how difficult it can be for some of you. The Hebrew is difficult, translations even more so, and services are long. And while I spend days and weeks writing my sermons, it is always a wonder that anyone really listens to my words, whose theme this year is Fear: Fear of God (the Yamim Nora’im), terror, loss of health, life, relationships.
The biggest challenge for us is this: we have too blithely turned our services into a spectator sport. People come to watch the action take place on the bimah instead of in the seats! You can change that by doing something to make our time together more engaging.
- So make some noise at services! They are not supposed to be quiet. I hope for a constant buzz of people singing along with the choir and Cantor and it is OK to chat to our neighbours, so long as we avoid long conversations that detract from the focus of the services and disturb others.
- Make the services more meaningful before you even get here! Find someone to whom you owe an apology. Ask forgiveness and forgive others at home, work and synagogue. Do real cheshbon hanefesh (scrutiny of our lives and souls) to put us in the right frame of mind to use the service as a catalyst for self-improvement.
- Da lifnei mi atah omed – Know before Whom you stand. If you are distracted in synagogue, have negative thoughts, get annoyed with this or that, say to yourself: “I stand here before my Creator and I must take account of who I am.” It will jolt us into experiencing truly meaningful prayer and devotion.
There is a tale of a wagon driver who took a rabbi from town to town. Passing an orchard. the driver said: “I’ll get some apples.” As he climbed a tree, the rabbi yelled: “He’s watching!” The driver scrambled down and ran. The rabbi drove till he caught up. “Rabbi, why did you yell: ‘He’s watching’? There was no one there.” The rabbi said: “I wasn’t talking about the farmer. I said – and he pointed upwards – ‘HE’s watching!’”
Come to our synagogue, a haven of sanctity. I want them to have a constant buzz, with all of you singing, thinking, engaging with God, Torah and the Jewish people. Then our ushering in of 5776 will be the best ever!
My wife Ella and our son Micah, with my daughter Elana and son Eitan, and I wish you all a sweet, healthy, blessed and peaceful new year 5776
Bivracha, shana tova u’metukah
Rabbi Stuart Altshuler