Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Looking Ahead To The New Year

My synagogue has been sending out a flurry of snailmail and emails as they get organized for the High Holy Days, Rosh Hashana (the Jewish New Year) and Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement).

I've always thought that Rosh Hashana was more accurate timing for the start of a new year, compared with January First. How can there be anything new or renewed in the middle of deep winter?

But Rosh Hashana comes in autumn, often close to the start of the school year, and even as a not-very-religious Jew, I've always taken Rosh Hashana more seriously than New Year's Eve or Jan. 1. It's not a Jewish tradition, but I've often made new year resolutions around Rosh Hashana time. And it's always a time of looking both back on the previous year and ahead to the year to come.

Like Christians who only go to church on Christmas and Easter, the High Holy Days often brings out the full, overflowing congregations to the synagogues, many of whom don't attend services except for these holidays and the occasional bar/bat mitzvah.

In a Jewish holiday or sabbath service, there are many places where congregants are honored with invitations to participate in the service -- opening the ark that holds the torahs, an aliyah during the torah reading (in which the person stands next to the torah reader, says prayers before a section is read and more after that section is read. I can't remember exactly how many aliyot there are during a shabbat torah service -- I used to know, and I suspect at least one person will comment to correct me :) -- but I think it's somewhere around six or seven.)

On a non-bar/bat mitzvah shabbat, it's not uncommon in smaller communities to have someone walking around among the early comers to the service trying to coax congregants into doing one of these roles.

But on the High Holy Days? When everyone and his brother is there? I always assumed those honors went to generous donors and those who volunteered long hours at the synagogue.

So I was pretty surprised last week to get a letter from the synagogue asking if I would accept the honor of opening and closing the ark during part of the service on the first day of Rosh Hashana. (I don't even know what part of the service it is -- the letter just said I'd be on the bima for pages 192-198.)

It's a huge honor, and I know it. I'm sure it was offered to me because the rabbis and other staff at Neveh Shalom know how sick I've been and how hard it's been on my family. (Although for all I know it could be a completely random thing too, that they have a computer program that selects congregants who haven't done it recently. But I prefer to believe I was intentionally chosen for the honor. :) )

And yet, I regretfully turned it down. It's a long service that day, about four hours, I think. And I don't think I could last the entire service but don't know exactly when my "part" would be. (The rabbis could probably give me a time estimate, but i didn't ask.) Six pages during a service can either be a really brief period -- because sometimes there's a lot of white space on the pages or big chunks are only recited when the holiday occurs on shabbat -- or it can seem pretty lengthy. I don't know how I'd do on my feet for that time, and it's traditional to be standing whenever the ark is open. (Ill or disabled people or those who for some other reason cannot stand don't have to. But it seems to me it would be weird to go up to the ark and open it and then start looking around for a chair or stool ... maybe I'm just self-conscious because I know there's no outward sign of my illness.)

But like the actors and actresses who are nominated but don't win at the Oscars, it's an honor just to be asked.

Meanwhile, I'm hoping that the new year brings me some answers. And a remission -- or getting better permanently would be even better -- would be most welcome too. As for resolutions? Well, I've got some time to think about it since Rosh Hashana isn't until late September this year.

And the current plan is for us to attend the service for the families with kids 5-years-old and younger. I'm pretty sure I can last an hour, even in uncomfortable chairs.

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