Dear TEE community,

In her poem, “Coming Up On September,” poet Marge Piercy writes:

The New Year is a great door
that stands across the evening and Yom
Kippur is the second door. Between them
are song and silence, stone and clay pot
to be filled from within myself.

As we approach the great door of this holiday season I’d like to offer some guidelines for how we might enter it.

Our time together is meant as an opportunity, not an obligation.

Growing up, most of my extended family went to synagogue only on the High Holidays. I got the message that this was a boring, unpleasant obligation that, for some reason, was necessary. It wasn’t until I was an adult that I began to understand that observing the Days of Awe was supposed to be for my own benefit. I didn’t have to follow along or listen to the sermon if I preferred to sit with my own thoughts. I didn’t have to fast on Yom Kippur or agree with what was said in the prayerbook. “Tools not rules,” was the way I now frame this to myself. The liturgy, the ritual, the customs we observe at this season are intended to be tools for improving ourselves and the world. Take what works and leave the rest.

It’s a ritual, not a performance.

In a performance, an actor takes on a role to tell someone else’s story. In ritual, we are meant to take off our masks to be present as our deepest, authentic selves, hearing and telling our own stories. In ritual, you can’t flub your lines or go off script because our imperfect humanity is an essential part of the process.

Leave your best self at home.

Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk, an early Hasidic rebbe, taught, “There is nothing more whole than a broken heart.” Or, as a more contemporary poet, Leonard Cohen, phrased it, “There is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.” Everyone of us is an imperfect, flawed individual who has experienced pain, difficulty, and despair. The Days of Awe are all about not having to pretend otherwise. Name a stigmatized or shamed situation – mental illness, addiction, domestic violence, suicide – and members of our community have experienced it. Premature death, life-threatening illness, unemployment, poverty, regret, failure – we carry those burdens too, and more. When you stop trying to keep up the pretense of perfection you’ll find you’re not alone.

Persistence not perfection.

Jewish tradition teaches that no human being is perfect as long as they are alive. We are meant to change and grow continually. The point is to do so with intention. Each year this task is brought back to our attention and each year we have the opportunity to keep at it, to return to the work of creating wellbeing for ourselves and others. The holidays are meant to offer encouragement and support for doing so.

May this be a season of renewal for all of us.

Shanah tovah,

Rabbi Drorah Setel