Monday, October 3, 2011

Days of Awe

Once again we are in the midst of the Days of Awe accompanied by my annual emotional turmoil. Even the name “Days of Awe,” a rough translation of
“Yamim Noraim” puts me into a perplexed state, a condition of suspended spiritual animation where like a pendulum, I swing between the extreme of good and bad karma. I understand the stated intent of these Days of Awe between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur: we fragile, mortals stand before the awesome, omniscient, omnipotent Hakadosh Baruch Who, with great humility implore him for another year of life, happiness, good fortune and blessings for the universe; where we humbly admit that we are but clay in His hands and powerless. As part of the process we submit ourselves before the Melech HaOlam and beseech His forgiveness. In theory it is a wonderful process purging us of our hubris, but knowing that it is as ephemeral as last years New Years resolutions. What I don’t understand is why that process is so time consuming, repetitive, monotonous and at times tedious to the point of being painful, especially when the cantor seems to drag it out and the rabbi’s sermon never ends? Why is it that the service is layered with piyutim (poems) that no longer resonate and repetitive prayers that go on and on “ad infinitum” all saying the same basic thing? How many ways can you say god is great? Why the need to repeat it hundreds of times during these Days of Awe? Surely we are sophisticated enough to understand that repetition won’t convince “Hamakom” that He ought to give us another opportunity, nor are we convinced that our imploring formulae works.

There was a time when spending a full day in the synagogue was a way of life, absent of anything more important to do and that repetitive prayer was “de rigueur”. But that was before the modern mind was corrupted by the speed of technology. It was before the age of computer technology where Google would provide pithy explanations and interpretations in nano seconds, replacing the need for cumbersome time consuming research. It was a time when people actually revered their rabbi, holding him in great esteem and deferring to his judgment and rulings, probably because he was the most educated and the most informed in the community. It was a time when hearing a cantor was the only entertainment available in the shtetl and probably wouldn’t have another opportunity for this kind of performance till the following year. In short, the way we approach these Days of Awe fly in the face of who we have become and what we have morphed into.

I am not the first one to have reached this conclusion. Ever since I was a kid, I remember adults coming to shul loaded with books, journals, and magazines, analgesics to numb the boredom of a drawn out davening, a poorly conceived and delivered sermon, or to blunt a very winded chazores hashatz that would take literally hours. That was a time when people were still respectful of tradition and normative behavior within the synagogue and community. It was a time before there was an official medical diagnoses accepted by insurance companies known as Attention Deficit Behavior.

Attention Deficit Disorder, known as “ADD”, is an interesting medical condition. It didn’t exist when I was a kid. ADD became popular in the 1970’s as the new excuse for a lot of hitherto unexplained behaviors. Interesting though is that the condition isn’t necessarily consistent. A youngster suffering from it may present ADD symptoms in the classroom but not on the ball field. A youngster may show ADD symptoms at bar/bat mitzvah lessons but not in music classes. I suspect that there are many adults unknowingly suffering from ADD confined to synagogue services, which may be the reason why they can’t sit through services running for 6-8 hours of abstract concepts, especially when they haven’t the foggiest idea about what it is that they are mumbling. Unless it is an unusual orthodox synagogue attended by scholars, it is safe to say that they don’t know what it is they are reading, other than having a vague notion that God is wonderful and all-powerful. It gets worse. Even if they have some notion about what the piyut is about they haven’t the time to focus on it before the cantor belts out the concluding ending verse and moves on to the next in rapid fire.

Another issue with the Days of Awe is the long hours between meals. If you follow the prescribed ritual, breakfast is verboten and eating is generally forbidden until at least after kedusha for the Shacharit service (where one could then sneak a light snack). That’s a long time. When the stomach begins to growl most people, even those not suffering from this form of ADD find it difficult to focus on anything but satisfying their hunger. Granted, our grandparents were different. They were disciplined and immediate gratification wasn’t part of their psyche. But for many of us, denial comes with a price tag. Couple that with so many of us suffering from ADD of the synagogue and you have a new appreciation for the Days of Awe.