It happens every year, just as it has been happening forever: Rosh Hashanah arrives, and the synagogues are crowded. Even those who, throughout the rest of the year, allow their Jewish connection to fall into the shadows are inspired to show up.
The High Holidays typically feature extra-long prayers, inspiring speeches and sermons from the rabbi, and, of course, the sounding of the shofar, the ram’s horn, many times over. Trust me, none of this resembles the synagogue experience of the rest of the year.
Prayers and hopes are centered around the point of shana tova, a good year: pleading and begging for a renewed connection and a good upcoming year.
As this occurs each year, the question is inevitable: Why are people doing this? Do those who emerge from their spiritual yearlong hibernation really need to disturb their slumber for a three-day, spiritually Jewish marathon, begging for yet another good year?
Besides, what does a “good” year mean? Are healthy adult men and women showing up to ensure their job is secure, a few extra dollars are found, their friends should love them, and their doctors should stay away?
The filled synagogues are not about people seeking healing, wealth and happiness. Infinitely more is happening. Indeed, every person who turns out for the High Holidays is giving up a matter of substance. It may be surrendering time, sleep, work or rest. Sacrifices are being made to attend services.
A sacrifice normally originates from a profoundly personal place. It is from here — that “spark” of spirituality — one is inspired to behave Jewishly: to pray, to pay attention to the sounds of the shofar, to take to heart words of Torah, and to consider reconnecting to spiritual roots.
Those who undertake this move ostensibly appreciate and grasp, on some level, the merit of their actions.
The High Holiday season tends to resurrect that spark of Jewish connection. In some cases, that spark has been waiting to be touched since the previous High Holiday season. And that spark of spiritual connection is “good.”
On Rosh Hashanah, we connect to a place deep inside with wishes not merely for continued health and wealth, but for that connection to endure another day — we hope until next year.
The dilemma: How does one turn this inspiration into a tangible, ongoing commitment? Even those more observant people whose connection is stronger struggle with carrying the inspiration from the High Holidays through the coming year.
The key, then, is to examine the real goodness in the term shana tova, the good year. One may experience goodness in several ways: good news, good mood, good weather. One can point to good deeds as well.
The ultimate goodness is that which is shared with others. Here, one has not only committed a good deed, but also shared and spread this goodness.
Yet people tend to worry about the reaction of others. In truth, if a deed is a good one, it should not matter what another may think.
Several years ago, I was attending the bar mitzvah of my nephew in London. My illustrious sister and her rabbi husband are Chabad emissaries to that far-flung neighborhood, and their neighbors are not the friendliest bunch. My sister advised us to be aware and to try not to stand out too much.
One example she mentioned was the tallis (prayer shawl), worn during morning services in the synagogue: It is forbidden to carry an object in the public domain during Shabbos. My sister encouraged us to bring the tallis to the synagogue on Friday, before the onset of Shabbos, and avoid wearing this conspicuous garment upon ourselves while walking in the street to services.
This arrangement did not work for me: I was caught in traffic and arrived at the house too late. The next morning, I placed the tallis on my shoulders at the house, preparing to walk to the synagogue. A family member was alarmed. “What are you doing? Are you really intending to walk outside like this after we were cautioned about unnecessary attention?”
Opening the door to leave, I looked back at this family member and said: “Do you honestly think I look normal without wearing my tallis?”
To a world unfamiliar with Judaism and Jewish symbols, one probably looks strange or even nuts.
But that should not matter.
When people feature loud and noticeable gestures, this behavior is usually done to seek attention to personal expression. When, for example, a Jewish person wears a yarmulke in the streets or modest clothing even on the hot summer days, one is expressing good deeds. These should never be causes of worry. These are moments and opportunities to be a proud Jew and share good deeds with others.
The hope for a shana tova, a good year, should include the goodness of sharing that which is good with others precisely because it is “good.”
And it just may happen that, despite your feeling nuts, the other person is actually inspired and moved by this goodness.
And that is the ultimate good.
When praying for a good year this High Holiday season and when wishing this upon others, it would be wonderful to make a commitment to perform a good deed that will not merely affect the person making the resolution, but also others out there as well.
And then the spark can become an inferno of warmth and light. The connection will be strengthened, and the year, together with the years to come, will contain only goodness.
Rabbi Yossi Lew is co-director of Chabad of Peachtree City.