We look not only towards our own words as a vehicle for change, continued the rabbi, but also to the words of the High Holiday liturgy. But they're archaic and require deep digging, as is the case with so much of Torah and prayers. Last week's parasha, for example, featured a list of laws, abhorrent to today's ears, about women as property, and the injunction that a "wayward and defiant son" be stoned. I learned yesterday that this last one has been read as a cautionary tale, written so we may "study it and receive reward" with the understanding that it has never happened and never will. To kill a child in the flush of adolescent rebellion would mean that we allow no possibility for change, which runs counter to everything else our tradition teaches. The ancient sages found these words troubling--but couldn't ignore them. They instead examined every possible angle of meaning until they were able to formulate an interpretation that made sense.
Are we supposed to do this with the frightening list of ways to die in the Unetane Tokef, or the dry legal formula of the Kol Nidre? And if we don't, how can we be transformed by these words? Parsing their true intent or emotional resonance at the moment we say them is like trying to find poetry in the phone book. The effort doesn't seem worth it. But, said the rabbi, music makes up for everything we don't understand. The music of the Yamim Nora'im, the Days of Awe, is like a hand that grabs us in a place where we have no language.
I'm continually amazed by the rabbis' and cantor's mastery at tapping into this wordless river. From up front they share their own total immersion in the sounds of the prayers, clapping and swaying and pounding the bima while leading us, by example, to deep and marvelous places. And yet their ecstasy is low-key, never drawing undue attention to themselves. The focus is completely on the congregation and our journey. I don't understand how they do it. I feel so self-centered at this time of year; I have to keep reminding myself that my involvement in the service is fleeting, and standing up there is in no way about me. I can barely contemplate my own path, let alone help anyone else with theirs. But I still need to appear confident. Leading services feels like one of the biggest reponsibilities I've ever had, equal to my obligations to family and friends. My work life, at which I spend far, far too much time, seems especially trivial during these weeks. (That's where I most miss the mark, the literal translation of "chet," otherwise known as sin. I have to do better at both surviving and really living at the same time.)
And I also have to stay focused on the rest of life and not drown, prematurely, in this music. I could have happily listened to it all year long, over and over again, but I knew I had to leave it for Elul.
There's an electricity in the air, the intoxication of honesty, during these weeks before the holidays. Rosh Hashonah is like standing on a threshold with a bunch of people shoving me gently into a new room. I never feel alone, especially now that I spend so much of the holiday looking out at and singing with these same people.