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Maximizing the High Holiday Services

September 26, 2011 | by Yerachmiel Fried

Five minutes of prayer said with understanding, feeling and emotion means far more than hours of lip-service.

Dear Rabbi,

I have a confession. Even if I can read some of the prayers on Rosh Hashanah, I still don't understand what I'm saying. To tell you the truth I'd rather take a quiet, reflective walk in the park this year on Rosh Hashanah than spend all those hours in synagogue saying a bunch of words that don't mean a whole lot to me anyway. (I'm not even a member anywhere). Do you have any suggestions?

Marc B.

Dear Marc,

I'm quite confident that your words echo the sentiments of many. The prayers are meant to be a powerful, relevant and meaningful experience. Sadly, our distance from the original Hebrew, coupled with a lengthy synagogue service, can be intimidating to say the least, and often a tremendous letdown for individuals seeking a spiritual experience. As a matter of fact, the majority of Jews don't even enter a synagogue over the course of the High Holidays!

I will offer a few words of advice that can perhaps alleviate your challenge and help get more from the service and the High Holidays.

  • Firstly, five minutes of prayer said with understanding, feeling and emotion means far more than hours of lip-service. Don't look at the prayer book as an all-or-nothing proposition. Try looking at each page or each prayer as a self-contained opportunity for reflection and inspiration. If a particular prayer doesn't speak to you, move on to the next one. Don't expect to be moved by each and every prayer.
  • Read the prayers at your own pace, thinking about what you are saying, without being so concerned where the congregation is reading. You don't need to always be "on the same page" with everyone else. If a particular sentence or paragraph touches you, linger there for a while, chew if over and digest it well, allowing the words to caress you and enter your soul. Apply that prayer to your own life and situation and use it as a connection to God. If you're really brave, close your eyes for a few minutes and meditate over those words for a while.
  • Don't let your lack of proficiency in Hebrew get you down. God understands English. Like a loving parent, He can discern what is in your heart in the language you express yourself.
  • Bring along some reading material. If you find yourself needing a break from the prayers, have something interesting on hand to read. (No, not the latest issue of Sports Illustrated. Print out some article from the web;’s High Holiday Reader PDF is a good place to start.
  • Do some prep-work. Rosh Hashanah is all about making a plan for your life (or at least the coming year). Spend some time answering life’s most important (and often most difficult) question. There is an excellent list of "20 Questions for the New Year," which helps prompt effective ways for moving your life forward. Go through this list the few days leading up to the holiday, and then bring your “conclusions” to the synagogue. You’ll have a good tool to help you focus on what exactly you want to be praying for!
  • Finally, come to synagogue well-rested. You might think that by sitting (and standing, and sitting and standing…) there is not much effort involved. But this is about making an emotional investment, which requires concentration and energy.

By sitting in the synagogue (as opposed to the park), you join millions of Jews in synagogues around the world. By joining hands with fellow Jews you are making a powerful statement about your commitment to Judaism and your place in the Jewish people. The Midrash teaches that "there is no King without a Nation"; only when we join together, as a congregation of Jews to coronate the King on Rosh Hashanah, only then do we build a kingdom of Heaven on Earth.

If you're not a member of a synagogue and are looking for a comfortable place to pray which doesn't require much background, please visit Around the country there are "High Holiday Learner's Services." These interactive, explanatory services, held mostly in English, utilize a fresh, new approach – combining ongoing explanation, discussion and camaraderie with other bright, interested Jews who are seeking to add meaning and understanding to their High Holiday experience.

With best wishes for a healthy, meaningful and joyous Rosh Hashanah to you, with peace in Israel, and for all the Jewish people and the world.

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