By Rabbi Schwarzman
(Edmonton) – Berosh hashanah yikateivun…uvyom tzom kippur yeihateimun. On Rosh Hashanah, we are inscribed in the Book of Life. On Yom Kippur, we are sealed in that book.
This prayer in the machzor is ancient, going back to the Land of Israel in the first few centuries of the common era. It’s part of the moving Unetaneh Tokef prayer, in which we consider, and ask, what will be the fate of each of us in the coming year – one of the most powerful moments in the High Holiday services. Who will live? And who will die? Who will be born? Who will become enriched, and who impoverished?
The timelessness of these questions, as we consider our very existence and yes, even our mortality, is why this prayer has been part of the High Holiday liturgy for so very long. We may not think of these existential questions much during the year, but during this season, we do.
This year, it seems to me, as our synagogues are again open, this prayer is no longer only a personal one. After months of enforced staying at home for work and school, many of us have gotten used to the idea of remoteness. So many things that used to be done in person – well, we’ve gotten used to doing them online or not at all. The Great Resignation that we read about is just one indication that people have thought about the jobs they used to have and are opting out of them.
And the same is true for participation in other aspects of life. Things we used to leave the house for we now tend not to, and few are the times that we miss the old way of doing things. Instead of a gym membership, my wife and I have a treadmill at home, and neither of us misses the gym much. It’s also a lot cheaper to have bought a second-hand treadmill than to pay every month for a gym membership. (The good news is that we actually use the treadmill. It’s not the proverbial place to hang laundry.)
Yet it is possible to apply this new wisdom in areas where it doesn’t do us good. Synagogues everywhere report members dropping out. Staying away from shul during those months of isolation has led many Jews to wonder why they needed to be part of a synagogue in the first place. Can’t we get the same benefits – maybe a bar or bat mitzvah for the kids, or in some cities, a burial plot – à la carte when we want or need them, instead of paying every year to be members?
I can skip the gym and get the same exercise on the treadmill at home. But being part of a synagogue community isn’t just about the transactions we have with our shuls. It’s joining a group of people dedicated, as we are, to building and maintaining a kehillah kedoshah, a holy community. That’s what synagogues are traditionally called – holy communities.
And this is what makes synagogue membership different from gym membership. In shul, we all say hello to each other, to the people we’ve known for years and to the newcomers. We’re there not to get something, but to give our best to add to the holy community we belong to. We’re there for each other, when new babies are born and when people leave this world, when times are good and when they’re hard. In synagogues, we’re working together on this amazing and complex project of life, uniting as Jews to do our best in applying our understanding of what G-d wants us to do in this world. There’s no better way to find meaning than to be an active part of a group of people engaged in the meaningful work of a holy community.
So, join the synagogue of your choice if you’re not a member now. If you’ve let your membership expire, renew it. And if you are a member, take a more active role in your shul and in your Judaism. Just as the treadmill in our home only works when we use it, not just because we paid for it, synagogue membership doesn’t work just by paying dues, necessary as they are. Synagogue membership works when we see it not as a fee to get what we want, but as an entry into a holy community that we want to be a part of and work for and support. And by joining, or rejoining, or renewing, we can all make sure that our synagogues will remain vibrant and truly alive this year and for many years to come. May we all be inscribed and sealed in the Book of Life, and may we all help make that happen by working to keep our synagogues alive and flourishing and growing, too.
Rabbi Steven Schwarzman is the spiritual leader of Beth Shalom Congregation in Edmonton.