Have you ever been sitting at a Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur service and asked yourself, “Why am I feeling somewhat distant from the wording of these prayers?” Or “Why do I feel so distracted here and the service is so lengthy?”
You are not alone. As a psychotherapist and a Jewish author, I’ve heard from thousands of diverse Jews (from the very religious to the not-very religious to the extremely not religious) who told me they felt bored or fidgety at times during High Holiday services in previous years.
Fortunately, there are some highly effective ways to connect more deeply with the profound themes and life-changing insights that can be found in the Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services of nearly every congregation. Here are a few easy-to-utilize steps on how to make these carefully choreographed Days of Awe more meaningful to you or a member of your family who feels bored or disconnected from High Holiday gatherings:
• Let the music move you. The services will come alive for you if you allow the beautiful melodies, the talented voices, and the intense sounds of the shofar to take you to a place of profound waking up. Rather than focusing on what people are wearing or whose kids are misbehaving, or even whether the rabbi’s sermon is perfect, let yourself be lifted up by the soulful melodies that connect each of us with hundreds of years of passionate and vulnerable Jews who have poured out their feelings of longing, sadness, joy, and gratitude at similar services during pleasant years and tragic years. As you listen closely to the music and the call of the shofar, imagine yourself surrounded by many generations of ancestors asking you lovingly, “Nu, how are you? How is your beautiful soul navigating this complicated world that is so challenging?”
• Do some personal preparation. During the days leading up to Rosh Hashanah, pick a phrase or a theme from the High Holiday prayer book that makes you curious about the mysteries of life or helps your soul find its true purpose of doing some good in large or small ways. Rather than getting bent out of shape by some harsh phrase from the prayer book you don’t like, choose instead to focus on phrases and themes that you select consciously to inspire and motivate you in the days and weeks surrounding the High Holidays. For example, what is a vow you made in the past year (to yourself, to a loved one, or to someone at work) and that you now realize you haven’t fully kept? What will it take for you to change that vow and create something new that is much more likely to be kept?
• Take charge of your breathing and your focus. I’ve found in my own life and in counseling many different types of Jewish women and men that one of the best ways to enjoy the High Holiday services and get more insights from them is if you notice your breathing whenever possible during the lengthy services. Silently say “Hineni, here I am,” a powerful focusing phrase that you can utilize whenever you feel distracted, tense, or frustrated. If you remember to breathe smoothly and fully as you open up your creative mind with these words, you may be surprised at how you start to become less stressed and more centered, not only at High Holiday services but throughout the rest of the year.
• Let your heart speak your deepest truth. At various points during the Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services, you will be given the opportunity to say out loud or to speak silently the truths, concerns, and aspirations you carry in your heart. In addition, you are being encouraged to speak these truths to the mysterious Source of Life that is beyond human comprehension. Yet we feel especially close to the mysterious One at these holiday gatherings. Whether you are a strong believer in a loving Presence or you wrestle with many doubts, these Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services ask you to dig deeply into your own heart and admit honestly, “This is where I have missed the mark,” “This is what I notice and appreciate about the gifts in my life,” and “This is what I am longing to improve in the coming year.” You will probably find that having the chance to slow down and connect with the still, small voice within as you express these profound truths is time well spent.
• Look for opportunities for progress, not perfection. One of the beautiful things about Jewish holidays such as Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur is that in Judaism we always have the chance to wake up anew, to ask for guidance, and to improve how we deal with our toughest personal, family, and work-related challenges. But we are not being asked to be perfect, nor are we condemned for being human and having our struggles. As you sit in the Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services, make sure to treat yourself with loving-kindness and see if you can connect with the mysterious Source of Loving-kindness that flows through your heart not only on these holy days but throughout the coming year. May it be a good and healthy year for you and the people whose lives you touch with your caring and your creativity.