It was 2012
Exactly five years ago this Rosh Hashana. I’m at the Aish Explanatory High Holiday service in the Crowne Plaza Hotel. The Rabbi is marching around the bimah, pounding his palm, chanting, “You’d better not pout, you’d better not cry…” His mock dance was used to illustrate what most of us might be thinking God’s judgment means on Rosh Hashana.
I didn’t know I was at an Orthodox service. I had literally just moved to Los Angeles, California days before. I wasn’t even sure I was going to do the high holidays this year. To be honest, I didn’t find the Santa dance all that engaging. In all likelihood, I would have gone home to Burbank and not returned to a synagogue for another 364 days (give or take a few, who can figure out that crazy Jewish calendar?) But rather than skipping out after the morning prayers like I normally do, I decided to go to one of the special classes offered between davening. The class was taught by a man named Saul Blinkoff. I had no idea that walking into that class would change the direction of my life forever.
I’m sitting in the Beis Medrish of Shapell’s Darche Noam in Beit Hakaram, a suburb of Jerusalem, Israel. I’ve been in Jerusalem for 2 months now. Rosh Hashana is tomorrow. And I’m reflecting on how a barely reform Jew from Dallas, Texas became a Shabbos keeping, tzitis wearing, mostly kosher, pretty much Orthodox Jew, over the last five years. It has been a slow and reluctant, enlightening and core shaking five years. I can’t tell you my most profound revelations. They’re too personal. But I will say the biggest shifts and the most life-changing revelations have all happened in the days of Rosh Hashana and the time immediately following it.
It was 2014
I’m still living in Burbank, but am regularly coming out for Shabbos dinners. But most recently I had learned the structure of the prayer service, aka the Shemoneh Esrei. Now when I went into a service I wasn’t just aimlessly reading the prayers as the community passed me by. I could participate because I had context, an awareness of before and after. And for the first time I had meaning in my prayers.
I had always disliked praying. Possibly because in my most desperate times, the times when I had let my ego go and poured my heart out, those pleas were never answered. But as I had become more involved, I was feeling God’s presence more and more in my life. If you look at the prayers of the Shemoneh Esrei, they’re not about the individual, they’re about the community. And I guess praying for others didn’t bother me so much.
As a side note, in the days leading up to Rosh Hashana that year, there was a particular prayer that was sticking out in my mind. May the expressions of my mouth and the thoughts of my heart find favor before you Hashem, my rock, and my redeemer. The prayer was like an infectious earworm of a bad pop song. Popping in randomly and refusing to leave my thoughts.
When I got to Morry’s Fireplace (the Aish Explanatory Service had changed venues) I was anticipating the special Shemoneh Esrei of Rosh Hashana. For the first time, the service wasn’t impenetrable. I took my three steps back, followed by my three steps forward. Then for some reason, I made the decision to take my time and go slow.
With each word, I meditated and breathed, contemplated and reflected. The rest of the service passed me by, through the repetition, and till only Hashem knows how much farther. I didn’t care. I was in the zone of zones. But then something started bubbling up. I realized that I was angry. Angry at God. It dawned on me that every play, every movie, every great emotional idea that I had written thus far in my life had its roots in this anger. I started to cry right there in front of everyone. I didn’t care. I pressed forward. Then when I got to the end and I saw it. The last words of the Shemoneh Esrei.
May the expressions of my mouth and the thoughts of my heart find favor before you, Hashem, my rock and my redeemer.
I recited them with the same determined pace until I reached the very final words. My rock. I couldn’t bring myself to say it. It just wasn’t true. God wasn’t my rock. He was a concept that I was willing to let into my life. But He was not my home base. Not where I was operating from. The pain was too potent.
I don’t know how long I stood there gazing at those words. Studying, thinking, feeling, like a soldier during the tentative first moments of a cease fire. But finally, even though it wasn’t true, I decided to say it. My rock and my redeemer.
At that moment, I felt my chest turn to stone.
It was 2015
I was now living in Sherman Oaks with two Jewish roommates. One pretty observant, one not so much. But still amazing none the less. At this point I was driving into Pico Robertson every Friday evening, turning off my phone, putting away my wallet, and spending the night at an extraordinary family’s house. But I was still waiting tables Saturday nights. So around 3 pm, I would end Shabbos early and drive back to my apartment to shower and get ready for my shift.
When I got the job at the restaurant I had told the owner that I was not available to work Friday nights because I did Shabbat on Friday. The owner was a Russian Jewish woman and said she understood.
The restaurant only had a core group of servers, so when a big night came everyone had to work. Those biggest nights were Thanksgiving, Mother’s Day, and Christmas. In 2014, December 25th, fell on a Friday. There was a tension in the air. Was I going to get the night off or not? Was it fair for me to get off my religious holiday every week while the rest of the staff has to work on their once a year holiday? Why couldn’t I be bothered to miss it just once? The murmur that particularly struck a chord with me was when someone said, “Religion for me is about helping others, not taking the night off.” I didn’t have an answer to that and it bothered me.
A couple of years earlier, when I was working at another restaurant, I had decided to work a Friday night because a coworker had some amazing audition and couldn’t get anyone to cover his shift. I didn’t clock in and I gave away all my tips that night. And despite that, I still felt terrible. But now, was I really prepared to do that again?
I went into Shabbos with this dilemma on my mind. It happened to be the Shabbos just after Rosh Hashana but before Yom Kippur. It is known as Shabbos Teshuvah. I was in the middle of my Shemoneh Esrei once again, going just as slowly as I did the Rosh Hashana before. While reading the special section of Shabbos prayers, it dawned on me. If I was getting this bothered about working on a Friday night, why wasn’t I so bothered about the rest of Saturday? It was as if the decision was made for me. It was time for me to take on the mitzvah of Shabbos completely. Maybe it was from a feeling of capitulation, giving myself over to something that I still didn’t fully trust, or from a feeling that I was betraying my secular intellectual values, but for whatever reason, once again I started to cry.
Back to 2017
There are more Rosh Hashana stories. There was the first time I kept a whole Yom Tov (which I did before I kept my first Shabbos). Also 2016 was a doozy but I’m still not ready to talk about it. And I only teased the beginning of my relationship with Saul Blinkoff. But the point is, Rosh Hashana is an extraordinary time where God makes himself available in a unique and almost tangible way. Things have the potential to become crystal clear and you have the ability to grow and reach levels you never knew possible. But you have to be open to it. And you should probably put in a little work if you’re not planning on doing so. If the service is foreign to you, find the Shemoneh Esrei and just focus on that. Don’t worry about anything else. If you’ve been doing this for a while, you probably don’t need me to tell you anything, you probably have some great stories of your own. But still, make sure you have a goal. Other than that, make sure to listen to the shofar, and have a great new year.
Simply beautiful, Ben. Great idea to focus on the Shemoneh Esrei when it all gets too overwhelming. Shana tova!
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Moving and inspiring. Your sincerity shines through.
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