Short takes from the high holy days

My synagogue hired a cantor for the high holy days. (We don't currently have one otherwise.) He's a friendly fellow, obviously very experienced, and very "performative" -- which some people liked but isn't to my taste. (I felt like I was at the theatre.) Unfortunately it's not just a matter of taste; elaborate chazzanut that you can only listen to is fine in a traditional setting, where it's in the cantor's repetition of the central prayer, but the Reform movement did away with repetitions. When there's only one trip through the prayer, everyone saying it together, and it's being led in a way that precludes me saying it, that's a problem. After Rosh Hashana evening and morning were like that, I decided not to go back. (I later skimmed the video of the second-day Rosh Hashana service, which started as a minyan-style service but drifted, and it was more of the same.)

For Yom Kippur I went to Chabad, like I did last year. Night and day -- I felt included from the moment I walked in, I was able to focus on the kavanah, intentions, behind the prayers, the more elaborate melodies didn't impede my own prayer because they were separate from it, a lot of the singing was accessible even with unfamiliar-to-me melodies, and there was plenty of way-finding (page numbers, quick explanations, etc) so people didn't get lost.

All are welcome, all included, on Yom Kippur, the machzor (special prayerbook) says, even transgressors, even that guy. Even me. The incense burned in the temple had many nice-smelling ingredients and one bad-smelling one (forgot the name, haven't looked for it yet) -- and the incense was invalid without all the ingredients. A congregation that excludes someone on the day of atonement is doing it wrong.

In the Al Cheit (confession of sins, really more like errors or "missing the mark"), there's one the rabbi commented on that I think isn't in the Reform machzor -- "the sin I have committed before you with a confused heart". There've already been confessions about intentional and unintentional sins, but this one is a little different -- it's saying that we can act with the best of intentions but still miss the mark because of the information or context we (don't) have. Our increasingly-radicalized society (and I blame extremists at both ends here) will cast someone as a villain for stumbling or for being a little different, but God will understand and Jewish teachings are full of instructions to presume good intent and judge others favorably. It seems entirely fitting that the Yom Kippur prayerbook does so too, even in the midst of listing serious sins that are wilful and wrong.

We ask for relief from many things -- famine, war... mageifah, plague. Yeah, that jumped out at me again this year.

God wants praise from us messy, sinning humans more than from perfect angels, says the machzor.

The final service of the day, Ne'ilah, talks about the gates of prayer closing at the end of the day. The liturgy has this urgency to get one last prayer in before they close. The picture I've always had in my mind is of us petitioners standing outside, pushing our messages through as the gates close before us. The rabbi said that the Chabad interpretation (I don't remember who he said it in the name of, sorry -- long day) is that the people are inside the gates, which are closing so we can have some alone-time with God without the pressures of the world. Or something like that. I'm not sure this idea really matches up with the liturgy, but it's an interesting alternate framing and since the whole thing is allegorical anyway, having different perspectives 24-25 hours into a fast helped me.

Chabad sure does say a lot of psalms. I couldn't usually figure out why.

I felt so warm, so welcomed, so included. The rabbi knows my background, and he welcomes me anyway. Like the transgressor. Like the smelly incense. Like a member of his own community -- and maybe, someday, mine too. (There are barriers both theological and practical, but there are also barriers where I am now, so... who knows?)