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Making the Most out of Services (ERH 5775)

For many people the High Holy Days are an ordeal. It's something they feel they have to do. And let's face it: for many people services are boring. As a result, they come late, leave early and spend a good part of the service day-dreaming or talking to the people around them. For a rabbi and for those who have come to pray, seeking a spiritual experience, this can be pretty disheartening. High Holy Day services can be daunting: the Hebrew is unfamiliar, the prayers can be confusing, and the services are long! Rabbis can spend hours preparing - and then wonder if it's worth it.

Part of the problem is that we've turned religious services into a spectator sport. Someone once said that football is a sport in which twenty-two physically-fit men run around on a field while ninety thousand people who need exercise watch. High Holy Day services are a sport in which a few people who know how to daven are watched by hundreds of people who don't know how.

I don't mean to suggest that rabbis don't need the High Holy Days - they do – or that no one knows how to daven – some do! But if there is a problem, it is that too much of the action is taking place up here and not enough out there in the pews. Here are a few suggestions to help make the most of this season:

First, when you come to services make noise. Services aren't supposed to be quiet. There should be a constant buzz in the sanctuary during services of people davening or singing along. It is OK to talk to your neighbor if you are "checking in." Just don't make it into a conversation.

Next, I'd like to remind you that the purpose these services is to help you focus on the task of the Aseret Yimey T'shuva, the Ten Days of Repentance, and that is to return to God, to a Jewish way of life, to family and friends from whom we may have become estranged. What we need to do tonight and throughout the next ten days is to say, "I'm sorry." These are not easy words, I have a hard time with them and many others do as well. Sometimes, you've done something wrong and need to take responsibility for your actions. But there are other situations, not of your making or out of your control, where the consequences are hurtful to someone and so you may be sorry that it happened. Even saying that is something and someone may thank you for saying it.

Finally, I'd like to remind you of the four words inscribed above our Ark that will help you make the most of these holy days: da lifnei mi atta omed, "Know before whom you stand." Every time you get distracted, every time you have a nasty thought, every time you get your get annoyed and are attempted to react, say to yourself: da lifnei mi atta omed, "Know before whom you stand." Repeat these words after me....

These words can be helpful not only here in synagogue, but even more so out in the world. If every time you're tempted to do something dishonest, hurtful or wrong – stop and say to yourself - know before whom you are standing, I believe it might make a difference in your life.

A wagon driver was once taking a rabbi from town to town. They came upon an orchard and the driver said, "I'll climb up one of the trees and get some apples for lunch." As soon as the driver climbed up in the tree, the rabbi yelled: "He's watching! He's watching! Nearly falling out of the tree, the driver scurried down and ran off fearful that the farmer would catch him. The Rabbi took the reins and a while later caught up with the wagon driver. "Rabbi: why did you yell he's watching?" The farmer was nowhere to be found." The Rabbi said: "I wasn't talking about the farmer. I was talking about God."

As we begin the Yamim Noraim, I hope you'll come to shul early, stay late, and become engaged in services. Most of all, I hope you'll take the Yamim Noraim home with you, so that they occur not three days a year but all year long. Your presence here makes a difference; you need not be a spectator but can be a player. And what you do today and everyday can change your life as well as the world.

Thu, January 23 2020 26 Tevet 5780