The countdown to the High Holidays has begun. We're about six weeks from Rosh Hashanah, which means most folks in my line of work are kicking into high gear. We have a lot of work to do to get ready. Of course, the tradition teaches that we all have a lot of work to do to get ready; the weeks leading up to Rosh Hashanah are prime time for internal spiritual work, self-assessment and discernment. We're suposed to take a deep accounting of who we are and where we're at so that we can do the real spiritual work of the Days of Awe themselves.
As the full moon of Av wanes, drawing us nearer to the month of Elul (which immediately precedes the yamim nora'im), I find myself thinking about how to prepare for the High Holidays on a practical level, not just a spiritual one. The inner work is important, obviously -- it's what I love most about this time of year! -- but there's external work that can make the Days of Awe much sweeter, too. Like finding a place to daven, feeling rooted both in a community and in the liturgical year.
Davening in a place where you know a few people, where you've been before and you feel welcomed and recognized, makes a huge difference. My big piece of advice for making the Days of Awe more awesome? If you don't have a place for the High Holidays yet, shop around a little. Pick a few Shabbatot between now and mid-September, and attend services a couple of times. If you have a place where you go for the High Holidays, but maybe haven't been there often (or at all) since last Yom Kippur? You get the same advice: pick a few Shabbatot, and go. Because High Holiday services feel completely different when they're set against a backdrop of some familiarity.
The Days of Awe are big and intense on an interpersonal level. Going to a shul where you can wave hello to people is way different than going to a shul where you're going to feel solitary and alone. (Trust me, the former is a lot more fun.) Plus, a lot of places grow wildly in numbers during the Days of Awe, and going from an intimate minyan to a packed sanctuary changes the emotional and spiritual dynamics of the davening experience. I often wish I could convince the twice-a-year folks to show up on an average Shabbat sometime; it would make the High Holiday experience so much richer, plus I think they'd enjoy seeing what we're like when our community takes its intimate form.
The Days of Awe are big and intense also on a liturgical level. The liturgy for the Days of Awe is rich, fascinating, and sometimes challenging. The mood in a synagogue changes during the Days of Awe; all this talk of repair and return, of God's sovereignty and our need to atone for the places where we've missed the mark, is heavy stuff! But it's not meant to happen in a spiritual vacuum. The liturgy for the yamim nora'im differs from the Shabbat liturgy thematically, melodically, verbally. Those differences highlight the Days' special themes, but those highlights don't show up unless you have some sense of what the HHD liturgy is different from.
Learning more about the holidays, their customs, their liturgy -- all of these things help, too, obviously. But any journey through the Four Worlds has to start right here in the world of assiyah, action and physicality, and on a physical level, the first way to start prepping for the Days of Awe is to find a physical place to be when the holidays roll around.
The High Holidays are like a marathon. Services are likely to be long. Distance from family (whether literal or metaphorical) can be really tough. Distance from God, even tougher. And I know the feeling of showing up at shul, wanting something meaningful to happen but fearful that it won't or can't (and then feeling culpable when the moment of transformation doesn't arise.) We have six weeks between now and the start of the holidays; how do you want to use that time, what do you need to check off of your personal list, so that the Days of Awe can be everything you need them to be this year?
As has been my custom for the last several years, I'll be spending Rosh Hashanah at my shul, and Yom Kippur at Elat Chayyim. If you're looking for a friendly place in western Massachusetts for HHD services, or for a deep, meaningful, heartfelt Yom Kippur retreat, let me know.