by Rabbi Leonard Cohen
(Calgary) – “I’m done with the Ashamnu’s, Rabbi.”
I knew exactly what he was talking about. Eric was a stalwart friend dating back to university; since my Semicha, he calls me Rabbi half in jest and half in respect. He was talking about the famous Yom Kippur Vidui prayer, where we announce all our transgressions: we have sinned, we have betrayed, we have stolen…
“I’m done with it. All these years of guilt and making myself small, and where has it gotten me? Divorced, scrambling in my career, almost 54 years old and still trying to figure out who I’m supposed to be when I grow up.”
Was this where he and I were meant to be at this stage in our lives? I reminded Eric that we were now in Elul, the month where we take stock of our lives, ask the hard questions, figure out what we need to change. We had roofs and clothes and food and all those basic amenities at the bottom of Maslow’s pyramid of needs. Were we entitled to more?
“So what’s the deal with all those Ashamnu’s? Why do we keep saying them year-in year-out?”
I wasn’t sure how to respond. Everyone’s experience of the High Holidays is different. We pray the same liturgy: the Rosh Hashanah verses of Malchuyot (Kingship), Zichronot (Remembrances) and Shofarot; the Yom Kippur imploration not to perish by fire or COVID, but instead be redeemed through Teshuva, Tefilah and Tzedakah (penitence, prayer, and giving). Some find it distressing, others exalting.
We may find our own High Holiday feelings changing dramatically from one year to the next.
It occurred to me that the Yom Kippur service was not meant to belittle or discourage us. If we were opening up our hearts to Hashem, and sharing our vulnerability, then it was meant to be done in a spirit of optimism. We weren’t meant to be perfect; we were meant to be honest. By being wholehearted with G-d and with one another, we made possible the potential for Teshuva – returning to our souls, to the selves we were meant to be and become. And we were doing all this in the heart of a community where no one was meant to stand above one another.
“So in other words it’s not about the ratrace or keeping up with the Schwartzes, it’s about helpful humility.”
Couldn’t have said it better myself.
Friday afternoon was turning to Shabbat evening, and so my call with Eric was nearing its end. I wished him a Gmar Hatimah Tovah, an early wish for him to be inscribed in the Good Book. He wished me lots of laughs and good digestion for the coming year.
I conveyed one last thought: It was still the middle of Elul, so Hashem didn’t promise us any answers to our questions yet. Maybe the questions we asked about ourselves and our lives were more important than the answers.
“You’re probably right, Rabbi. Next time you speak to G-d, tell ‘em I’ve got a lot of questions.”
I said to Eric, “Tell Hashem yourself.”
Rabbi Leonard Cohen is leading in-person High Holidays at Kehilat Shalom, with services at the Calgary JCC. Health and safety precautions will be exercised.
Kehilat Shalom is also hosting an outdoor Family Tashlish Service at Heritage Park on Tuesday, September 7 at 3 pm at Heritage Park. The service is open to all who wish to participate.
For further information or to attend, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.