When boredom strikes at synagogue, try harder to reconnect

Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are the highlights in a year of Jewish holidays. The importance ascribed to what are known as “the High Holy Days” is second to none on the Jewish calendar. When it comes to liturgy, though, they are also among the toughest days of the year. The prayer service, you see, is just, well … so long.

What would normally be a manageable two, maybe three hours in synagogue on a normal Sabbath stretches out to four, five and sometimes even six hours on Rosh Hashanah and nearly all day on Yom Kippur.

But more than the time, it’s the words. There are so many of them. And to be perfectly honest, they aren’t the easiest to digest.

For example:

“And so all shall ascribe the crown to You … to the One who is too awesome for praise … Who suppresses His anger … Who forgives sins.”

Or, “He will judge the world righteously … he judges alone, who can dispute Him?”

Powerful stuff. But what do you do if the words don’t speak to you, if you find it hard to relate to the text on the page? To my ear, the language sounds too authoritarian and patriarchal, designed to induce raw fear in the supplicant, which to my taste seems seriously out of step with the rhythm and flow of contemporary life.

So every year when Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur come around, I have the same problem with all those old-fashioned words. Now, before you call me a heretic, hear me out. It’s not like I’m going to stop going to synagogue or remain part of the community on these festive days: My commitment to a Jewish lifestyle transcends any transitory difficulties I may have with the liturgy. But it would be nice if the text wasn’t so archaically unapproachable.

My annual struggle was made even more poignant this year when I noticed our 13-year-old daughter Merav sitting in shul, book closed, staring blankly and bored into a corner of the sanctuary.

“I just don’t get it,” she told me as we sat down following the holiday to discuss her synagogue experience. “I mean, we’re supposed to be praying to God, but does God actually listen? And how do we know there even is a God? The words say we do, but I can’t understand it at all.”

Then she added a particularly barbed zinger aimed straight for my heart: “When I grow up, I’m for sure not going to be as religious as you.”

Hold on there, missy. Not as religious as me? I’m not your combatant here. I’m more of a partner, going through the same issues, struggling with the text, not getting it, feeling out of place. Maybe we can work this one out together. Lord knows I’ve already tried.

A few years ago at Rosh Hashanah, I decided that if the words didn’t speak to me, I just wouldn’t say them. But rather than space out like my daughter, when it was time for the Amidah, the silent prayer, I closed my siddur, folded my arms over my chest and tried to meditate.

I strived to empty my mind, to just be present, noticing all the sounds and sensations around me, appreciating life and the opportunity to be together with a community of seekers.

Would this approach help me get closer to God and my fellow spiritual seekers, I wondered, or was it just a way to pass the time? Whatever the motivation, it worked pretty well.

The next year, I upped the ante a bit and, in addition to meditating, tried to relate to the inherent musicality of the service. We attend Jerusalem’s fabled Leader Minyan for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, where the singing is particularly joyful and the tunes lean more towards rock ‘n’ roll than traditional Eastern European drinking songs (think Leonard Cohen instead of Dudu Fisher).

I once again closed my eyes, but this time I tuned in to the symphony of sound surrounding me. I noticed it rise and fall, swelling to crescendos at times, at others becoming so quiet you could hear your neighbor sweat.

But at the end of the day, there were still the words. And as this year’s Rosh Hashanah rolled around, it seemed to me more than a bit disingenuous to continue ignoring the words, especially given their sheer quantity. Rather than avoid the text, could I return to reading the words, I wondered, but relate to them differently?

After all, although the words may be predominantly about our subservience to God, the ultimate goal of prayer, I’ve always believed, is to positively influence our own sense of self so as to improve our interpersonal relationships and to make the planet a better place. Isn’t that the highest goal in Judaism — tikkun olam — fixing the world?

I decided to try this approach on the Avinu Malkenu section of the service, the heartfelt plea to God to intercede in earthly affairs. It’s particularly appropriate at this time of year: it’s said twice on Rosh Hashanah and a full five times on Yom Kippur.

I started with what seemed to me the hardest verse: “Our Father, Our King, forgive and pardon all our iniquities.”

What does that mean? What if I flipped it? What if I thought about this from the inside out: an admonishment not from God, but that we should stop being so hard on ourselves.

Now, that I could relate to. It’s long been one of my personal sins that, if I make a bad decision, I continue beating myself up long after it’s necessary. Similarly, if I say something to someone I shouldn’t have, even if I’ve apologized, I tend to hold onto the guilt and blame.

What this verse in Avinu Malkenu seems to be saying is that we need to acknowledge that we’re only human, and we’re not always going to be able to do the right thing all the time. Only by forgiving ourselves can we remove the “harsh decree” the prayer book speaks of next, and in that way move on, grow and be able to better ourselves and the world.

From there, it wasn’t hard to think of other personally meaningful ways to reinterpret the remaining verses of Avinu Malkenu. Such as:

“Our Father, our King, fill our storehouses with abundance.” Or, how can we work together to address hunger and famine throughout the world?

“Seal the mouths of our adversaries and accusers.” Fight for truth and don’t shy away from standing up for what you know is right.

Have I found my answer? Maybe — for this year at least. But I don’t have any secret formula for ultimate truth.

If my approach for the High Holy Days speaks to you, go for it. If not, keep searching.

But don’t give up, don’t disengage from the tradition. This is the message I have for Merav, my confused yet very normal teenage daughter. For, as I learned this year, it’s never too late to start reclaiming your relationship with the words.

Brian Blum is a freelance writer and resident of Israel. He formerly taught at San Francisco State University.