The High Holidays Bring Us Together as a Community
Shwer zu sein a yid.
It’s difficult to be a Jew. This old Yiddish expression, often said wryly and with a hint of self-deprecation, succinctly sums up the Jewish experience on the most basic of levels: It is a challenge to be a Jew in terms of ritual, tradition, and observing halacha – in other words, internally difficult.
But it’s also externally difficult, in terms of how we relate to others and the outside world. Let’s admit it: even if we observe the vast bulk of Judaism’s tenets only in the breach, our tradition and our affiliation with virtually any component of the Jewish experience sets us apart from others.
It draws attention, particularly at this time of year.
For during the 10 days of repentance and in particular on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, time stands still. On Rosh Hashanah we take time off from work to spend the lion’s share of two days in shul, grappling with a complex, historically layered liturgy devoted to repentance, divine kingship, the creation of the world, and spiritual renewal – themes that can run counter to our modern sensibilities.
Nine days later we’re back again, this time in a 25-hour marathon of fasting and prayer – all in an effort to ask forgiveness, reflect, come to grips with our finitude, and somehow regain a sense of faith and solidarity with who we are as a Jewish people.
Shwer zu sein a yid.
And yet throughout it all there is supreme joy – at being reunited with our families, of sitting around the yom tov table and catching up with each others’ lives, and sharing greetings with fellow Jews around the world in person and lately, via every conceivable social media platform that technology has put at our disposal.
For many, this is an opportunity to carry out what the Rabbis call a cheshbon ha-nefesh, a spiritual stock-taking, contemplating where we’ve come since our last High Holy Days, assessing whether we might have done things better or differently, and sadly, embracing the memory of those who aren’t here to celebrate with us.
But for us, this past year, the ‘difficulty’ that is woven into the contemporary Jewish condition comes from a deeper, more troubling source: anti-Semitism. For most of the summer, beginning with the kidnapping and murder of teenagers Naftali Fraenkel, Gilad Shaer, and Eyal Yifrah, followed by the Israel-Hamas war, we have witnessed a rise of Jew hatred around the world that has evoked in our people a kind of spiritual nausea.
Once again, we can’t help feeling out-of-step with the rest of world.
For those who lived through or were raised in the dark penumbra of World War 2 and the Holocaust – followed by the phoenix-like rebirth of Israel and the Third Jewish Commonwealth – “Never Again” was uttered as a declaration, a pledge, and a sigh of relief.
But the virus of anti-Semitism wasn’t eliminated. The contagion lay dormant. With each conflict Israel and the Jewish people faced in war and via attempts to annihilate it, the doors of ‘permissibility’ in terms of expressing Jew hatred opened ever more boldly in the public space.
Whereas once, as little as 10 years ago, Jews took offense at the underlying anti-Semitic tropes exhibited by the media and periodically erupting in British salons and studios amongst the chattering classes, now we watch as a 100,000 men, women, and children march through the streets of London voicing their support for Hamas’ genocidal regime and winking at such slogans as “Hitler didn’t finish the job.”
Shwer zu sein a yid.
And yet, it is precisely at times like this that we can look to our history – and our High Holy Day liturgy – for strength and inspiration. For the traditions we Jews uphold and rituals we practice are centuries-old. And when we remember that no century has passed during which we Jews have not been faced with a threat to our existence, we need to flip that recognition around and ask: If, as the Pesach Haggadah tells us, V’hi she-amda – in every generation they rise up against us, how is it – exactly – that we have survived and thrived the way we have?
How is it, despite the obstacles, what historians used to call ‘disabilities,’ put before us in the form of expulsions, pogroms, ghettos, discrimination, and attempts to annihilate us – did we manage to survive?
The answer, I would posit, is a kind of innate spiritual resilience.
For, ironically, because so much of our history has been so remorselessly grim and yet so incredibly rich and glorious, we can look to those who came before us for inspiration and courage. The machzorim we hold in our hands are the fruit of this legacy, containing the prayers, the reflections, the wisdom, and the inestimable aspiration of our people that enables each generation not to ignore the hatred, but to transcend it, building yeshivot, codifying the Mishna and Talmud, engaging with the wider world, winning our rights as equal citizens, reviving an ancient language, and establishing a State of our own.
During the High Holy Days we grapple, we reflect, we inspect our lives with all the rigour of a forensic investigation, contemplating the multi-layered meaning and metaphor of the Book of Life. Somehow, we emerge refreshed and stronger for having assembled as a community – as a community of Jewish communities – simultaneously reading the same prayers, asking the same forgiveness as our fellow Jews around the word.
It has been said that by virtue of our history, our tenets, and our culture that Jews became the first global community. From vulnerability we create strength.
Shwer zu sein a yid? Perhaps.
But in the same breath, particularly at this time of year, we’re equally able to say, Mah tovu ohalecha Ya’akov, mishkenotecha Yisrael – “How goodly are your tents, O Jacob – your dwellings, O Israel.”
L’shanah tovah tikateivu – may we all be inscribed and sealed for a year of strength and resilience in the days ahead.