There’s something special about visiting the synagogue on Jewish New Year but I never expected to undergo a spiritual power surge.
Rosh Hashanah or Head of the Year in the Hebrew calendar (which fell on September 21), is a time for renewal – for people of the Jewish faith to cast away sin and fill up with good intentions and honey cake. We wish each other L’Shana Tova for a good New Year and eat the cakes, along with apples dipped in honey in the hope that this time of year is sweet. It’s a joyous prelude before our fate is sealed 10 days later on Yom Kippur – the Day of Atonement when we fast and pray for forgiveness.
Once inside the synagogue’s courtyard, I felt relaxed and content. Perhaps I knew instinctively that this was exactly where I needed to be?
For me, Rosh Hashanah is always associated with the headiness of spring when the air is fragrant with flowers and the whole body unfolds towards the warmth of the sun and the brighter daylight.
But this year it was different. We arrived to find The Emanuel Synagogue surrounded by police along with the normal security detail. It was a sign of the difficult times we’re living in: a tangible reminder that once again we could be a target for hate.
Proceeding to the entrance, we produced our tickets, gave our names and passed through to the next checkpoint.
These days, I’m always nervous at large gatherings, constantly glancing over my shoulder and searching people’s faces for signs of criminal intent. But once inside the synagogue’s courtyard, I felt relaxed and content. Perhaps I knew instinctively that this was exactly where I needed to be?
The High Holy Days – the period between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, is the time when the entire community comes together to worship. So it’s hard not to be distracted when catching up with those we may not have seen since the year before.
During the opening prayers I was noticing everything that was happening around me, nodding to friends and enjoying the familiar chaos as people found their seats. So I wasn’t ready for the wave of emotion that hit me when the choir started to sing a hymn that was very meaningful for me. In such a beautiful setting, in the heart of the Jewish community, I suddenly felt the tears welling in my eyes.
I was crying for the unborn baby that I had lost at 19 weeks in the womb, 26 years ago and remembering those early weeks of that pregnancy when as regular worshipper I thought of that particular song as a lullaby to my unborn child. Despite the fact that I was later blessed with a healthy son, the pain of that loss is still very real.
I wasn’t ready for the wave of emotion that hit me when the choir started to sing a hymn that was very meaningful for me.
And in this spirit of togetherness, I thought of all the parents and children who had been lost to each other in the Holocaust - wondering how they could ever go on? And now with the clear and present danger in our society, evidenced by the strong police presence outside, could it all happen again? Certainly the growing march of extremist views into mainstream politics is a signal that minority groups including Jews can never be complacent – that we always have to be on our guard.
From that moment on, everything came into sharper focus as though I was seeing through an extra sensitive camera lens. When the time came to turn towards the Ark where the Torah scrolls are kept in their beautiful covers, I felt their majesty and Holiness, sensing the words of wisdom, which have guided us over time ever since the Torah was given to Moses on Mount Sinai.
Our people are no longer wandering in the desert but in one sense there’s still so much isolation in a world where religious devotion is increasingly being seen as subversive and where Jewish graves and synagogues have been desecrated. The lessons from the past have gone unheeded. So there was an extra sense of jubilation as the scroll was unwrapped almost as an act of defiance and carried victoriously around the synagogue for worshippers to touch with their tallit (prayer shawls) or prayer books – another boost of spiritual energy in this sacred space.
In years past, during the long Rosh Hashanah services over several hours, my mind has usually wandered to thoughts of the celebratory lunch. I start fantasising about the honey cake and the sweet, glazed challah (bread) studded with raisins. This time, I really listened to the words of the sermon, which was about honouring and respecting each other by not continually glancing at our phones as we speak: about the importance of staying in the moment.
In years past, during the long Rosh Hashanah services over several hours, my mind has usually wandered to thoughts of the celebratory lunch.
Later, towards the end of the service Chief Rabbi, Jeffrey Kamins referenced marriage equality when he spoke about non-discrimination, something that we, as Jews, should know all about.
I looked around the synagogue then and noticed the young couples, some of them gay, perhaps experiencing their first Rosh Hashanah together. I saw such hope and wonder in their eyes as they showed the vulnerability of being touched by love and starting out on the journey together.
The rabbi blew the ancient shofar – the ram’s horn, which was also blown on Mount Sinai when Moses received the Torah. It’s a wake-up call to ask forgiveness for our sins and to search for the spirituality in our lives.
And finally, it was time to rejoin the outside world with all of its threats and the social media lines running hot. This time I felt strong and confident as we walked down the street. Then later, sitting down to lunch I was aware of something sweeter inside of me than honey cake. In the synagogue that day, I’d glimpsed an extra dimension of light.
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