We sometimes like to think that our ancestors were pious in practice and thought at a level few people attain in this world. There are even those among us who look wistfully at communities that live exclusively according to the rhythms of statutes and rituals and deem them “authentic Jews,” while we are factory seconds.
I may not be able to persuade you otherwise, but I hope the upcoming High Holy Days enable you to consider a different message. The reconciliation we seek and the forgiveness we ask are embedded in that system of observances and requirements we consider beyond our reach. Are we asked to seek forgiveness for wearing mixed linen and wool, for contact with something ritually unfit or flipping a light switch? Yes. But even in the traditional world those are small things. Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur are not about small things – they are about defining moments.
So why does it seem that so much of Jewish life is concerned with small things? For those who aspire to a level of piety, the small things allow a point of entry into the ultimate concerns. If I strive to live a life of complete devotion, then I wish imbue even the smallest act with a measure of sanctity.
But it’s clear that the overwhelming majority of Jews have never been such pietists. Our confessionals are not about minutiae, they are about big deals – how we speak to each other, the nature of our sexual expression, care of the needy, business ethics, self-image. They are not categories some editor invented; they are the accumulated experiences of ordinary people who recognize they live imperfect lives.
But who can overcome such a big deal? Who will fast for a day and pretend to have overcome a compulsion, or to have repaired a schism, or to have restored a broken trust? Not a one of us – no matter how many mitzvot we do or acts of compassion we perform. We need a point of entry, a gateway to repentance that allows us to realize a small success and lift up the possibility of comprehensive spiritual renewal.
As you prepare for the Days of Awe, seek out your small success within the life you live. Use it to arrive in synagogue with a sense of your worthiness of forgiveness. Likewise, when you are confronted by hundreds of pages of prayers and readings in the mach’zor, seek out those few words of meaning that open the power of the day. Better the person who learns to genuinely repent for a single transgression than the one who gives lip service to comprehensive regret. Better the person who finds a single moment of deep connection with God than the one who merely tolerates the entire length of prayer.
May you be inscribed and sealed for a good year. Those sentiments come from Ann and me and our newly expanded family – Julia, Max, and Jennie and Kevin.