Although the month of Elul is my busy season as a rabbi, I really love this time of year. For me, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are accompanied by meaningful customs, beautiful melodies, and a sense of new possibility. For a number of my community members, though, I know that the High Holidays pose a real challenge and have the potential to feel alienating. For many, the key challenge is that the observance of these holidays (more than many others) is focused around prayer. Moreover, the High Holiday liturgy is filled with images of God that seem anthropomorphic and sometimes even conflict with the belief system of contemporary Jews. This time of year, I am often asked: Why should I say words that I don’t believe to be true?
I think the problem is that many of us learned to approach the liturgy far too literally. Perhaps if we reframe how we approach the liturgy, we can remove the stumbling block posed by this litmus test of belief.
The words of the prayer Unetaneh Tokef serve as a great case-in-point. This medieval piyyut (liturgical poem) has come to play an integral role in the Rosh Hashanah Musaf service, and it contains some of the most classic (and potentially alienating) images of God. The prayer opens with the image of each individual standing before God in a courtroom, while God (the judge) makes decisions about who will live and who will die in the coming year. The God portrayed here knows all and has the power to “remember everything that has been forgotten” — much like Santa Claus in the song, who “knows when you’ve been bad or good, so be good for goodness sake.”
If taken literally, this image induces in me a feeling of panic. Because we are all human and therefore imperfect, no one can be assured that the judge will rule favorably. I can understand why — if presented only with the false dichotomy between reading this prayer literally or not showing up — many Jews would prefer not to engage with this liturgy at all.
If we can learn to read the liturgy less literally, though, then the words of the machzor (the High Holiday prayerbook) become poignant in a much more positive and potentially transformative way. In order to do this, however, we first have to accept that the machzor presents not one image of God, or of the relationship between God and human beings, but rather a composite sketch, a collage of many images. These images are far too diverse to be understood literally. Instead, I believe, the machzor invites us to temporarily inhabit each metaphor, and to think about what truths each image can teach us about God, ourselves, and the world. In doing so, the language of the liturgy provides us with a roadmap for how we might engage in the very human processes of self-reflection, teshuva, and self-improvement.
Read in this way, Unetaneh Tokef’s fearful image of God as a judge takes on a different valence. If we understand it as a metaphor, we can ask what effect it will have on us — emotionally, psychologically, and behaviorally. If even the angels are gripped with fear and trembling on this day, as the text of the prayer says, then it makes sense that we too are supposed to experience a sense of fear or awe on Rosh Hashanah. The courtroom setting also emphasizes that we bear full responsibility for all of our actions. Hopefully, this realization will motivate us to scrutinize our deeds in a deeper way.
From there, Unetaneh Tokef quickly moves on to a second image: That of God as a shepherd. In contrast to the judge-defendant relationship, the shepherd-flock metaphor is softer, as it implies a level of caring. Whereas a good judge is supposed to be impartial and detached, a shepherd has a vested interest in ensuring the well-being of his sheep. This shepherd, in particular, cares about each creature individually, “causing each one to pass beneath his staff.” If we can inhabit this image fully, we might feel cared for, protected and nurtured. It is human nature that when we feel safe in this way, we can challenge ourselves more deeply, and we therefore have the power to change more profoundly.
Finally, the prayer ends with a set of increasingly fleeting images. It says: “We are fragile as pottery, so easily shattered, like the grass that withers, like the flower that fades, like the fleeting shadow, like the vanishing cloud, like the wind that rushes by, like the scattered dust, like the dream that flies away.” As the text transitions through all of these stages — from pottery to grass to shadow and ultimately to dream — each step of the succession becomes less concrete, and more ethereal and abstract.
Emotionally, this reinforces the idea that we are all small and insignificant in the greater scheme of things. Although it wouldn’t be healthy to think this way all the time, when coupled with the courtroom image in which what we do matters deeply, this last set of images provides a beautiful counterpoint. The end of the prayer gradually transitions us into being able to contemplate the world without us in it; in other words, it provides a gentle entry point to one of the most difficult things we are called upon to do during the High Holidays: To confront the fact of our own mortality.
I believe the structure and diverse images of the High Holiday liturgy were crafted to challenge, support, and push us, and ultimately to allow us to reorient our lives in a transformative way in a short period of time. The concrete images of the machzor evoke such different emotional responses in us, and in this way, experiencing the liturgy leads us on a journey. For me, the key question is not whether we “believe in” the words we are saying (at least, not in a literal sense). Instead, if we can learn to read prayer in the language of metaphor and poetry, we can open ourselves up to the very human experiences of reflecting on our lives, confronting our limitations, and changing and growing each year.
With the time that remains in the month of Elul, I wish all of us great success in preparing ourselves for this emotional journey.