I had a horrible dream last night that I completely forgot about the second day of Rosh Hashanah. (But I had an excuse; it fell on Martin Luther King Day—it was REALLY early—and I assumed, in perfect dream-logic, that there could only one holiday a time.) As soon as I realized the truth, I ran around in a panic, yelling and screaming—who led the service? Would I be banished from the congregation? How could I ever atone?
I was enormously relieved to wake up and remember that today was only one holiday. I had been writing about guilt before I went to sleep, probably the reason for the dream, and also thinking about another al chet to add to the list come September. That visiting couple at the end of my row this Shabbat, the ones who were shocked by the appearance of the gospel choir, were also very annoying. They didn't say hello when I sat down (then again, neither did I, because I was annoyed they were sitting in MY part of the pew.) The man, clearly Jewishly knowledgeable, was unfamiliar with our siddur and tunes and spent much of the service flipping pages in grumbling confusion. When he did recognize something, however, he sang it really loud and fast, usually winning the race with the cantor and getting to the end first. I wanted to believe his zeal was spiritual, but could not help but imagine that he was trying to demonstrate, by mumbling at the highest possible decibel, how it really should be done. This man I didn't know from Adam, with his repeated, intrusive bursts of phrase fragments, started to represent all the reasons why I stayed away from Judaism for so many years. I began to hate his apparent closed-minded, self-congratulatory triumphalism—and then hate myself even more (al chet) for judging a complete stranger, on Shabbat no less. (Not just judging; making up an entire life story, complete with conflict, failure and ill-gotten gains.)
So I took many deep breaths and tried to grab onto some wisps of gemilut hasadim amidst the bad singing aimed at my left ear. I calmed down. And when I came back to my seat after chanting Torah, the man had a big smile on his face and held out his hand: "Yasher koah!" I realized that he looked just like most of my elderly relatives, who were pretty nice people beneath all the kvetching.