My first Yom Kippur
October 13, 2008
Ask any rabbi about their first time leading High Holiday services, and I'm guessing you'll get a wry smile and memories of an emotional rollercoaster. It's easy to get overwhelmed with preparations. The High Holiday liturgy is rich and dense. And we know, as clergy, that it's our job to facilitate what's supposed to be one of the most intense spiritual experiences of the year -- but who can guarantee what kind of experience the members of a community will have, no matter how good the shaliach tzibbur's intentions may be or how hard she works at preparing the service she thinks the community wants and needs?
Early in my preparations for my Yom Kippur pulpit at FSU Hillel, I posted to the Aleph rabbinic student email list with a query about what my colleagues (especially the women) wear when leading Yom Kippur services. I knew that the flowy Indian embroidered Shabbat dress I've worn on retreat these last few years wouldn't send quite the professional message I wanted. (I'm young for a rabbi anyway, and I wanted to give the impression of someone who's competent and put-together.) But I didn't want to wear my usual "professional" clergy garb (black suit, pearls, leather shoes) because I've taken on the customs of wearing white, and eschewing leather, on Yom Kippur. What to do?
I got great suggestions from many of my classmates. Thanks to a friend who likes to shop, I found a white linen suit on sale (the nice thing about doing this in September: summer clothes are available at reduced prices!) I have a white tallit. I bought white canvas shoes. But probably the most helpful email I got during that flurry of correspondence came from one of my teachers, Reb Phyllis Berman, who reminded me not to get so hung-up on my wardrobe or on memorizing exactly the nusach which is on my high holiday mp3s that I lose sight of the important spiritual work I need to be doing at this time of year. I can't help anyone else through the Days of Awe unless I've done my own spiritual housekeeping. I needed that. It's advice for which I'm still grateful.
Preparing for this pulpit stretched me. There was a lot to learn, of course; that's inevitable. But beyond that, this community wanted a service that differs in many ways from the services I've been attending for the last several years. As longtime readers know, for the last four years I've spent Yom Kippur on retreat at Elat Chayyim, and I'd attended Reform services for years before that. The folks at this Hillel wanted a service that's much more in the classical Conservative mold. These would need to be services without guitar, without hand-drums and chanting, without the contemporary poetry on which I so often rely.
I told them I could do what they were looking for. My training is transdenominational; my obligation was to provide the service they wanted, to meet them where they are. But it was a little bit daunting, and as my preparations continued I had some moments of anxiety about whether I could live up to their expectations and fulfill their needs. My teachers, I knew, could take the Harlow machzor (High Holiday prayerbook) and lead a rich, spiritual, heartfelt service using only the classical words on the page... but living up to that ideal was easier said than done.
A few weeks ago I realized that I was going to need to think about Yom Kippur service leadership in a different way than I think about leading davenen on weekdays or Shabbat. I know the weekday and Shabbat liturgy pretty well at this point. I know the deep structure of the service, its rhythms and flow. I have a repertoire of melodies I can easily call to mind. But having never been responsible for High Holiday davenen before, I wouldn't be able to navigate this liturgy with the same fluidity and comfort. I can't lead these services like a rabbi with twenty years' pulpit experience, because I'm not that rabbi (yet.) I can only lead from where I am.
Still, I had an obligation to this community, and I wanted to do justice to the holiday and to them. In the end I would have to trust my preparation, my immersion in the liturgy, and the skills I've learned in my first three years of rabbinic school to carry me through. Stepping off the plane into the Tallahassee airport on Tuesday felt a little bit like taking my first steps into Albany Medical Center three years ago. There was a sense of diving into the unknown, into something for which no amount of training could really quite prepare me. What would it feel like? Would I be able to stay on my feet by the end of the day? Would I be able to lead the kind of services they had asked for?
My first Yom Kippur as shaliach tzibbur (prayer leader) is already a blur in memory. But the community seems happy with how things went. They had asked me for familiar texts and familiar tunes. My aim was to provide what they asked for, and to imbue it with the kavanah (focus/intention) and heart that are for me the core of Jewish Renewal. And I tried a few things which were new to them: chanting prayers in English as well as Hebrew, and offering customized blessings for those who'd come up to the Torah. (They had assigned seven aliyot in the morning service, and three in the afternoon; after each, I offered individualized blessings arising out of the verses we'd just heard.)
From what I've heard, they seem happy with what I brought to them, which makes me more glad than I can say. It feels good, now, to have navigated my first high holiday pulpit. I imagine that next year will prove challenging in still new ways, but that's okay; it's good to be pushing my own growing edge. And it feels good to have taken the leap of making this transition: from spending Yom Kippur taking in spiritual sustenance, to spending Yom Kippur trying to give over some of the bounty I've received from the rabbis and teachers who've blessed me.