My topic for Elul this year seems to be the challenge of change--within myself, my path in life, and even my physical surroundings.
Over the two days of Rosh Hashanah and one of Yom Kippur, I'll be helping lead services at three different locations (ornate synagogue, massive stone church, modern windowless theater). When I think of High Holy Days prior to three years ago, my first association is place: 2003, the stuffy basement at that other snooty congregation. 2000, front-row balcony with the choir, trying not to laugh as we faced east to pray to a stained glass window of Jesus and Mary. And 1990, waking up at services for the first time ever, even though I was in a folding chair in row ZZ behind a large woman with blue hair, as the cantor from Israel sang Hatzi Kaddish.
So when I discovered that leading at my synagogue was truly egalitarian--there's no "main location," and all the rabbis and hazzanim, in a series of combinations that must require advanced algorithms to achieve, rotate equally between them all--I panicked. I wanted to be in just one of those places, where I could look out and see the same people day after day. And when I finished singing, sit in a seat reserved just for me. (All seating is first come, first served.) After I left the bimah, exhausted, ecstatic, I didn't want to feel like I was walking into the junior high cafeteria just to discover there was no room at the table with my friends, and the cool kids didn't want me at theirs, either. I wanted to pray in an environment--and chair--that felt like home.
This issue, two years ago, cause me a great deal of stress, and I arranged with friends to save me a seat. Last year I learned I could get a "reserved" sign from the ushers and put it wherever I wanted, but was so verklempt from my vocal woes that I forgot. My friends again came through, even before I asked. But they were in a part of the room I wasn't used to, way on the left where you couldn't really see. I was a little disappointed when I sat down, and annoyed at my greedy reaction--dayenu, isn't anywhere good enough as long as I'm with my loving community? God doesn't care about geography, so why should I?
As the day went on, I didn't. Instead, I got to watch the percussionist from up close as he spread an array of bells and finger cymbals on a velvet cloth and then coaxed a ting or gong out of each at the proper moment. At the Aleinu Malhuyot I summoned the courage to prostrate myself for the first time ever--because I was near a dark corner where I could hide from in the crowd. I mumbled alongside people whose mumbling I never heard before, yet we stood shoulder to shoulder with complete ease.
I still love going home--still want to sit in that same row every Shabbat, and again with my friends these coming holy days--but I know I'll be able to pray just as deeply if I can't, and maybe more so. As in the rest of my life, I need to remember that the view can get better if you just move even a little bit to one side or the other.