Questions, self-reflection heighten Holy Day meaning

Like a coach prepping his team for the big event, Rabbi Richard Litvak of Aptos is urging congregants to warm up for the spiritual Olympics of the Jewish year — the High Holy Days, which begin with Rosh Hashanah at sundown Wednesday, Oct. 1.

In Temple Beth El's latest monthly newsletter, he has included a passage on the meaning of prayer followed by questions: What is prayer/worship to you? What do you want it to be during the High Holy Days?

In the past, Litvak has posed other pre-Holy Day queries: What were you most proud of during the last year? What do you most regret? What Jewish ritual or area of knowledge would you like to expand in the new year?

"Perhaps one of the most important ways to benefit from the High Holy Days is to ask ourselves the important questions that will help shape the new year," he says.

Meaningful High Holy Days, in other words, do not exactly appear like manna from heaven. Maximizing their potential for reflection and transformation, many say, takes thought — and work.

In that spirit, Litvak poses his annual Holy Day questions.

The liberal Jewish magazine Tikkun takes a similar approach. It has included in its September/October issue a six-page High Holy Day supplement composed by editor Michael Lerner, who also is rabbi of the San Francisco Jewish Renewal congregation Beyt Tikkun.

A spiritual workbook of sorts, the supplement guides readers through an extensive and very personal review of the past year — urging them to assess everything from how they cared for and neglected their bodies and souls to what steps they took to improve the political, economic and social states of the world.

Readers are encouraged to reflect on relationships in their family and workplace. What problems arose in those arenas, and how did they contribute to the problems' genesis or resolution? They also are asked to review a list of personal traits, including tardiness, lying, self-denigration and paranoia, and then to assess how those may have played a hurtful role during the past year.

"The 10-day period that begins with Rosh Hashanah and ends with Yom Kippur can be used as a profound psycho-spiritual transformative process," the introduction to the supplement reads, "a time for each of us and all of our community institutions to become involved in introspection and transformation."

Yet, in many synagogues, the introduction continues, the High Holy Days are not particularly conducive to that process. In some, it notes, the energy is primarily social, with congregants busier catching up on each other's lives than on their own spiritual work.

Rabbi Lavey Derby of Tiburon's Conservative Congregation Kol Shofar acknowledges the highly social nature of the Holy Days, a time when congregations generally mushroom to numbers rarely seen during the year.

But "it only gets problematic if the social component gets in the way of people's spiritual experience," he adds. "If all I want to do is talk to my neighbor, then I'm not focusing my attention on developing spiritual insight for myself."

On the flip side, Derby believes High Holy Day synagogue socializing often adds significant meaning to the season, especially when people stop to appreciate the experience of belonging to a greater whole. "Community and connection to community is such an important value Jewishly," he says.

With an eye on that ethos, nearly 100 people convened last Sunday at the serene Santa Sabina Retreat Center in San Rafael for pre-High Holy Day meditation and study of Kabbalah, or Jewish mysticism. The Kol Shofar-sponsored event marked a first.

"The High Holy Days are a time when we are directed to turn inward," Derby says. "The only way it's really possible to do that is if we learn to quiet ourselves."

Derby has other ideas for upping the High Holy Days' meaning quotient, as well. This year, he is suggesting congregants sit down one-on-one with family members and close friends to assess how their relationships have grown over the past year and how they can improve.

"I'm suggesting to people they work very hard on listening," Derby says, "and on not being afraid to say those two terrifying words — "`I'm sorry.'"

In addition to setting aside time with loved ones, Derby recommends people take time to reflect on those who have passed away. The High Holy Days, he notes, are an ideal time to visit the cemetery.

"It's a very ancient Jewish tradition to visit with one's ancestors and remind oneself where we come from," he says. In addition, the cemetery reminds us "we are mortal, that we are in fact finite beings. It's a very helpful thing to remember during the High Holy Days."

Like Derby, Rabbi Sydney Mintz regards the High Holy Days as an opportunity to turn to people and things that may have been forgotten or neglected during the previous year.

In doing so, "personally, I like to go into nature, to go outside," says Mintz, an associate rabbi of San Francisco's Reform Congregation Emanu-El.

In particular, Mintz values tashlich, the ritual of symbolically casting away one's sins into a body of water — usually using bits of bread. An increasing number of Bay Area Jews have started observing the rite in recent years, flocking to rivers, streams and oceans to expunge their metaphorical personal demons.

"I think it's a good way to look at what you're releasing, to make space in your life for the things you'd like to embrace, accomplish," she says.

Temple Beth El in Aptos has an annual nature rite of its own. Every year on the Friday evening before Rosh Hashanah, the congregation holds a picnic dinner and services on the beach. Tonight, therefore, congregants will gather not under the roof of their sanctuary but on a sandy coastal expanse.

"We're trying to feel more fully God's presence," Litvak explains of the beach excursion. "Watching the sunset over the ocean in all its magnificence and the stars come out as the night progresses really helps people to feel the wonder of God and the sense of awe in God's creation."

While Rabbi Yehuda Ferris is all for creatively tailoring the High Holy Days, the leader of Chabad of Berkeley is a purist. He believes that following the holidays' prayers and customs to the letter ultimately guarantees a meaning-infused season.

"The recipe has been tasted and tried for thousands of years," he says. "It's set up for renewal and for getting us in touch with our soul, with fellow Jews, with God. You don't have to go anywhere else. It's in your backyard — ready made."

Leslie Katz
Leslie Katz

Leslie Katz is the former culture editor at CNET and a former J. staff writer. Follow her on Twitter @lesatnews.