It’s the morning of Rosh HaShana eve, 4am, and dad’s soft voice wakes me up from a sweet dream. In hushed voices as to not wake up mum, who has been working incredibly hard over the last few days to prepare for yom tov (holiday), he reminds me that it is time to wake up for selichois (penitentiary prayers). It is dark and cold outside and every bone in my body wants me to just roll over and pretend that this was just an uncomfortable dream. But I know better than that. Tomorrow is Judgment Day!
I hate this moment in time. I wish it was Cheshvan (the Jewish month in Autumn), or Kisleiv (the month during which Chanukkah falls), or any other month of the year really. Why does it have to be Tishrei (the month of the High Holy Days)? Why can’t we just celebrate the holidays with some good food, family spirit and joyful song? Do I really now have to wake up in the middle of the night to pray for 4 hours?
Yes, I do. This has never been optional.
This morning follows the whole month of Elul, the month of repentance. During this month we prepared ourselves for the big court case to happen on Rosh HaShana, during which God Himself and His Heavenly Entourage will judge us on our deeds of the past year. They will weight up all our good deeds against our bad deeds and will come to a verdict as to our status in the coming year. If they find us to have sinned and not repented they might condemn us to a horrible year with pain and misery.
But God is all-merciful. And that’s why He gave us the month of Elul during which we can repent and prepare ourselves for our trial. Deep down I know that this is a tremendous opportunity and that I should be immensely grateful for this gift. But on every other level of my mind and body, I hate this month. I hate it and I fear it and I loathe it. If only I could have a time machine that would transport me into mid-Tishrei when the repentance-period is over and there’s festivities and food instead! If only I could fall into a coma and wake up on the eve of Sukkot when this nightmare is over!
But I can’t. There’s nothing I can do but suffer through. How I dread this time of the year!
And on this morning of the eve of Rosh HaShana, as I am quickly getting dressed and trying to refresh myself after just 3 hours of sleep, oppressive memories of the past month pass in front of my eyes. The endless speeches by my mashgichim (mentors) on repentance; the endless guilt and fear; the constant anxiety that I’m not doing enough and that God won’t find me pure on Judgment Day. It’s all too much and too oppressive, but I mustn’t say that. I mustn’t acknowledge even to myself that I hate all of this, as that in itself is a rebellious thought against God. God has given us a tremendous gift – the gift of repentance – and I mustn’t find it oppressive. I must rejoice in this gift and be grateful!
I am done clothing myself and I head down the road to the mikva. Before beseeching God it is proper to immerse oneself in the ritual bath to spiritually cleanse oneself.
The dark roads are full of men hurrying to the mikvas and the synagogues. Many are murmuring prayers as they are walking, anxiety and fear is in the air.
As I walk I think of what awaits me on the days ahead. There is no light at the end of the tunnel. Tomorrow is Rosh HaShanah and we will be spending 7-8 continuous hours in the synagogue praying. The following day is the second day of Rosh HaShanah, during which we will repeat the exact same protocol. I dread it. Sitting for 7 hours and reading hundreds of pages of prayers and incantations in a foreign language – the only word that comes to mind to describe it is torture!
I have tried to prepare myself for the prayers to make them more meaningful. I have learnt their translation and have read commentaries on them, but, frankly, they are just bloody boring. It’s just prayer after prayer of “God is the greatest and the most merciful” and “we have sinned and regret it; please forgive us” and “please don’t kill us this coming year!” Honestly, if God is really that merciful, why on earth would He put me through this nightmare? Why am I praying to be prevented from having a miserable year, when I am having a miserable year right now thanks to these prayers?!
I know that I will be sitting there on Rosh HaShanah morning, counting the hours. Two hours will have passed. 5 more to go. I know that I will be leafing through the pages of the machzor (prayer book), counting how much we have left, mentally breaking them up into milestones to make it more manageable. “In only 50 pages we will have reached the half point of the first prayer!” I tell myself, trying to prevent myself from going completely insane. “In half an hour I will take a toilet break and have a stretch.”
But after Rosh HaShanah it will be far from over. Follwing it are the Ten Days of Repentance, during which we will get up early every day and recite more and more prayers of repentance. Our fists will hit our bosoms countless times to express our great pain and hurt and regret that we have sinned against God. Personally, I’ll just be hitting my bosom to distract myself from the mind-numbing boredom and brain-dead monotony of the endless penitentions.
Like, I get it. I admit that I have sinned. I haven’t been perfect. I have sneaked in a loshn hora (gossip) here, I have missed a prayer there. I accept that I have what to repent on. But, like, I have said this prayer a million times by now; I have already been confessing my sins since the beginning of Elul over a month ago; I truly am sorry and I will never do those things again – even if only to have to avoid this torturous journey of repentance. But why am I still hitting my chest? Why am I still repenting? Why am I still getting up early to cry and ask for forgiveness? Has God not heard me the first 100 times that I asked Him for forgiveness? Is He hard of hearing? Or does He just enjoy the power rush of having us beg on our knees like this for one and a half months?
I have reached the mikva, undressed myself and immersed myself in the pool of stinking, greasy and hair-dandruff-infested water. But the water is also hot. You can’t be picky in life and you’ve got to take the little moments of pleasure that you get given amidst all the misery. I know that in 10 minutes I’ll be swaying and praying and wishing I was dead. I may as well enjoy the warmth that this human sauce of a water-pool offers me.
As I dunk my head beneath the water, wishing that I’d never have to resurface again, my thoughts circle back to those days ahead. The Ten Days of Repentance will climax with Yom Kippur – the final day of atonement, during which we also fast and abstain from all pleasure. Yom Kippur is undoubtedly the harshest day of the year. You are in the synagogue praying for 17 of the 25 hours of the day. You do that whilst fasting, not wearing shoes, not being able to refresh your face or wash your hands, and on top of that, you are wearing your festive clothes that way on you, suffocate you and absorb all your bodily fluids.
On the other hand, Yom Kippur is also the last day of the penitentiary period. You know that once night falls on the evening after Yom Kippur you are going to eat as if you’ve never eaten before and all your guilt and promises and anxiety is going to fly out the window and you will be free to sin as your heart desires until the following Elul in 10 and a half months’ time.
And that’s when Sukkot arrives. Sukkot was my favourite festival. It’s fun and joyful and filled with good food and, most importantly, it is free of guilt and repentance and of long prayers and of air that is so heavy that you can cut it with a knife. Sukkot is definitely God feeling bad for putting us through the nightmare of Elul and the High Holy Days and being like, “chill a bit my children. Have some good food and take it easy just for a bit.” How I love God on Sukkot!
I emerge from the mikva wet and excited by my breif sukkot fantasy. Reality hits me in the head. Sukkot is still 10 days away. In the meantime there are hours upon hours and pages upon pages of boring, meaningless and torturous prayers. No amount of convincing me that these prayers are profound, mystical, pleasing to God, etc. can make them anything but numbingly and never-endingly miserable.
Yes, I know, I have also read the chassidic literature. I have also seen that every word of prayer of a Jew builds up mystical cities and palaces for God in the Upper Realms. I have also heard about the tremendous joy that happens in the Upper Realms when Jews pray. I am aware of the Higher, spiritual powers of the words of prayer. I know that they are infinitely holy, profound, divine and esoteric.
But none of that makes them any less boring and meaningless and please-kill-me-now miserable. The only consolation that I can possibly have right now is that it will be over soon. In only 10 days. 10 very long days.
I arrive in the synagogue. The chazan (prayer leader) starts the prayer with a melancholy tune. The congregation follows him in harmony. It’s depressing as hell. The least I can hope for now is that after all of this God really does grant us a good year. C’mon, it would be mean not to!
Shanah tova and a happy New Year!