It’s Time To Bring Our Hearts Back Home
by Jhos Singer
We are a mere 2 weeks away from the end of this Jewish year. In a fortnight, it is likely that many of us will be gathered in community to ring in 5780, with hopes and dreams for a solid and content future. But to envision a better future, we also have to reckon with those parts of our lives and our world that are still broken or out of alignment. And so we gather to do the work of personal and communal redemption.
The rituals, prayers, and collective exploration of our individual failings and accomplishments represent a path traveled by Jewish people for close to two thousand years. When someone decides to face those challenges in community—whether they are Jewish, from another spiritual tradition or of no religion, full of faith, nostalgia, curiosity, or doubt—they are, de facto, offering themself as a link in the chain of Jewish continuity, and a contributor to this tradition’s spiritual legacy. All are welcome to take part at Chochmat HaLev.
Year after year, generation after generation, this ritual has stood the test of time, evolving and transforming as needed to be meaningful to those who take upon themselves the work of tshuvah, tefillaand tzedaka—returning to their spiritual center, asking for help, offering gratitude along the way, and committing themselves to justice.
Our master teachers, the rabbis of the Talmud—a scrappy bunch of outlandish thinkers, queer-headed activists, and sideways visionaries—devised these rituals from a few Biblical directions. According to the Torah, RoshHashanahis a day of convocation, solemnity, rest; one which includes a fire offering sacrifice and one that is yom teruah, literally a day of sounding. It is followed ten days later by YomKippur, also a day of rest and convocation with the special addition of atonement and affliction.
As they struggled to find ways to make the new year gatherings compelling to the post-temple generations, the Rabbis found themselves contemplating some of life’s biggest questions: Who am I? What am I doing with my life? Am I worthy? What does this all mean? How do I live a life of authenticity? What is forgiveness? How do I atone, and for what? Long before their far-off descendants would establish the fields of psychoanalysis, psychiatry, and psychology, they tapped into their spiritual imaginations for imagery and metaphors to help rally and energize their communities to engage in profound personal growth work.
Here’s what they came up with: they envisioned that every year, on Rosh Hashanah, three books are opened. The first is for people who are entirely good, upright, or righteous. The second is for people who are entirely evil, wicked, or nasty. And the third is for the rest of us, the beinoni, the middlin’ folks, who are a mash up of positive and negative impulses, actions, and habits. As you can probably imagine, the first two books are short tomes indeed, perhaps one page, maybe two or three names on a good year. The third book is enormous—and this year there will be close to eight billion names in it.
The rabbis made it clear that in this challenging work, first and foremost, we are not alone! Being messy is normal! And everyone must learn to both bear guilt and raise blessing with grace. They knew and actually wanted us to celebrate our amazing ability to forgive and be forgiven. They wanted each of us to know, when examining our most shameful moments, that we are in good company and that there is compassion waiting for us if we will just quit hiding, come clean, and become agents of healing. So they left us a blue print for how to literally become the change we seek. Using a unique blend of carrot and stick, love and threat, they created a liturgy that asks us to shed our negative attitudes, fear, pain, and unhealthy habits. They created a spiritual endeavor that is celebratory and contemplative, ecstatic and heartbreaking, freeing and challenging.
Julie, Lior, Jeffery, Lynn, all of our musicians, and I have been working to create this year’s rituals based on the rabbis’ wisdom and deep teachings. With beautiful music, dance, meditation, and teachings we will intertwine ancient traditions with current insight to create a space for all of us who struggle to reconcile our inner sinner and saint. Let us gather to revel and cry and embrace every moment of tenderness and joy. I look forward to being together with you as we navigate this resplendent and rocky path. All aboard—it’s time to bring our hearts back home.
Blessin’s for a shanah tovah, a revelatory new year—Jhos
P.S. A special shout out to our wonderful Executive Director, Dorrit, and the High Holy Day Committee (Janet, Peggy, Judy, and Ida) along with the many volunteers who make these High Holy Days possible. That said, we still need folks to help out on the day of the services. Click here if you want to get involved. It’s a great way to meet folks and to be an important part of the intergenerational, communal magic we’re weaving together at Chochmat HaLev.