But in a way that’s new for me, and that I’m trying to figure out, the experiences I was having at the services weren’t really about doing teshuvah, though that’s of course what we were all talking about, and what the chagim are about; nor were they – this might be going too far, but only a bit too far – really about my own moral conduct, which I have other and ongoing ways of thinking about and trying to change and purify. (In particular I’d say that the traditional models for asking forgiveness and being granted forgiveness are remote from my own lived and shared experience.)
What the experiences had to do with was rather the joys of community, in several forms. First and foremost, there was the joy of singing in community, the uplift and almost out-of-body intensity that singing in community offers (that’s in fact what it feels like, my voice emerging from my body but freed from it, up there in the hills and the common air), the way that in such singing, deeply centered as I am in the details of texts, the texts almost cease to matter, and the tunes float free. There’s the joy of seeing people I cherish but see only seldom, once or twice a year, maybe only during the chagim, which isn’t often enough but also is, and I’m reminded that what you say in Yiddish to people you haven’t seen for a while is sholem aleykhem, “peace be upon you,” and the answer is aleykhem sholem, “upon you be peace,” and that feels right. There’s the, inextricable from the sorrow, of feeling close to people during yizkor, as they name the dead they are remembering, and we feel the presence of all of them. There’s the joy of the radiant light illuminating us in the tents, at Kol Nidre and Ne’ilah, the light making it possible to see the machzor but having its own independent vibrancy, this especially when one’s outside the tents, on one’s way in, seeing those already in the light glowing there. There is the way in which all these feelings and experiences contribute to a sense that we belong together.
(There are of course more solitary experiences: the feeling of prostrating myself on cold stone, the feeling of so many beautiful Hebrew words in my mouth. There are of course less joyful experiences: the cold, the rain, the unease about mistakes in Hebrew pronunciation, the occasional and inevitable moments of loss of kavanah. We’re all human beings, after all.)
I said at the beginning that these intense, buoying experiences didn’t have to do with teshuvah, and that’s in most ways true. In another way, though, it’s false. Doing teshuvah requires some buoyancy in the one doing it, some trust, some hope. These experiences of community nurture and stimulate those capacities. At the end of the davening, when the shofar is blown, I’ve had those capacities stimulated. What I do with them is up to me, of course, and whatever I do I’ll have to do within the moral frameworks that pertain to me and not that of the vidui. But I’ll be better able to do whatever I do because of what I experienced during the davening.
Nakhmen of Bratislav wrote, in a passage I quoted during Musaf on the first day of Rosh Hashanah, “you who give joy to the broken spirit, /help me to rejoice –/ for alone I am very low.” He was appealing to the riboyne shel oylem, the teacher of the universe, but his words make sense in the context of my experiences. Alone I am very low, in community I can rise.