Are you feeling cheated out of the High Holidays this year, even before they begin?
The Jewish calendar has a rhythm, and an essential ingredient in that rhythm is preparation. Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik once said that in America he knows many Sabbath-observant Jews, but no erev Sabbath-observant Jews. He meant that if one does not prepare emotionally and spiritually for Shabbos, it’s not the same Shabbos, and few people really prepare in that way.
Or, as he colorfully put it, “A person works on Friday until the last moment. He speeds home, arriving 15 minutes before candlelighting time, then jumps into the shower, then back into the car, then speeds to the synagogue just in time for the prayers.
“This isn’t Shabbos.
“Holiness requires preparation.”
So much the more so, the holiness of the High Holidays.
July and August roll around, and one begins to think of Rosh Hashanah. Perhaps one needs to make plane reservations to visit family in another city for the yom tov. Perhaps one begins to think of a guest list. Perhaps one begins to introspect. Nothing heavy — yet. But the mood of the High Holidays begins to creep into one’s consciousness.
Hardly so, this year. July and August roll around — poof, it’s Rosh Hashanah already. September 4, to be exact. The earliest in decades. So early, in fact, that, as many know by now, Chanukah and Thanksgiving will coincide for the first time, on November 28. (So much for the “December” dilemma.)
There are technical reasons for this: the Jewish calendar is both lunar-based and solar-based, and since the lunar year is some 11 days shorter than the solar year, the Jewish calendar must add a leap month six times ever 19 years to keep Passover in the spring (a solar measure). Well, the last leap month didn’t catch us up that much to the solar cycle (which is why Passover was so early this year). So here we are.
The technicalities aside, when is there time to think — in advance — about the High Holidays this year?
There is an important assumption in that question: Thinking takes time. A spiritual mood is not manufactured on demand. The build-up to the High Holiday season is a slow increase in intensity. This year, there does not seem to be the customary amount of time for that.
In a sense, this is, of course, an illusion. Measured by the distance from the last two Jewish holidays — Passover and Shavuot — the time between them and Rosh Hashanah is, this year, the same as every year. But measured by the seasons — the distance from summer — the time before Rosh Hashanah this year is shorter. Much shorter. Thus, the calendar demands compensation. Think sooner. Think harder. Focus sooner, focus more acutely. It’s the nature of the calendar this year.
How does one focus sooner?
A spiritual master in Jerusalem, the late Rabbi Solomon Wolbe, used to begin his spiritual preparations for the High Holidays with the onset of the month of Av, two months before Rosh Hashanah. Truth to tell, much as we might complain about not having sufficient time this year to get ready for the holidays, how many of us truly take advantage of Elul, the one month prior to the holidays — the month set aside to prepare for them? Yet, Rabbi Wolbe, as a matter of standard operating procedure, set aside two months, every year.
His summer, in other words, already contained the seeds of his High Holidays.
And that’s the way it’s going to have to be for the rest of us this year. One can’t just jump into Rosh Hashanah any more than one can just jump into Shabbos.
At the very least, to raise this issue in our consciousness at this time is to get a leg up. Everyone needs that.
To put it somewhat differently, when the High Holidays are over this year, it will be a 13-month wait, not a 12-month wait, until they roll around again, in 2014. The spiritual work this year will have to be more sincere, more intense, because it will have to last longer.
Surely, between health, livelihood, satisfaction in work and in family life, not to mention the state of the world — war, famine, human trafficking, fires and floods — we all have spiritual and ethical work to do. We can all do more.
For ourselves and for others.
Lights, camera . . . it’s time, this year, to begin.
Copyright © 2013 by the Intermountain Jewish News