Each autumn, the Greater Boston area awaits the return of thousands of college students. It’s a regional rite of passage, marking the launch of a new academic year. Jews worldwide also prepare each fall for our own annual renewal, the High Holidays. Both groups, it turns out, are often remiss for failing to carefully read the syllabus.
The High Holidays are a lot like the syllabus for a college class. They contain detailed instructions on how students—in this case, Jews—should comport themselves during the class, which in this instance is everyday life for the next 12 months. Only, like most students, too many Jews forget to read it.
College professors often give an exasperated sigh and bemoan that so many students frequently ask questions for which the only appropriate response is, “Did you read the syllabus?” Typically, they did not. Or if they did, they forgot what it said and neglected to give it another glance.
Not everything’s in the syllabus, of course. But I always filled mine with all sorts of information, some required, some advisory, to assist students in mastering the content of the course and learning new insights about their role in society as informed, responsible global citizens. You need to read the syllabus carefully, I’d say, and not just once. It’s a helpful guide that warrants periodic attention.
And so it is with the High Holidays. Far too many Jews who pack the pews for a few days in autumn think they’ve mastered the material by humming along with the melody and nodding their head in approval (assuming they are not, as many do, nodding off during the service). Like some students, sad to say, not a few parishioners spend far more time picking out their attire than thinking about the content of what they’re supposed to read. They dress up instead of dressing down their moral lapses.
Like any good college class, the High Holidays are not a passive spectator sport for mere amusement. You need to think actively and carefully, to synthesize the material and to assess the merits of the arguments. You need to offer sound revisions when necessary, ponder alternative perspectives, muster examples from your own experiences and incorporate, as any professor hopes, the wisdom of the text into your sense of self. A carefully crafted college syllabus is not about how to get a passing grade. It’s about how to grow as a person. Should the High Holidays be any different?
Let’s face it; anybody can stand up during the services and feign an earnest pounding of their breast while reciting the vidui, or confession. If it’s going to be a hollow gesture, you may as well stay home. You’re not prepared for class.
Not every student should enroll in every class. Likewise, I would never demand that all Jews enter a synagogue on the High Holidays. My concern here, as in the classroom, is largely with those who choose to do so. If you’re going to enroll in the course, then you really should do your best. The same is true for the Ten Days of Repentance. If you’re the same person when you leave as when you arrived, then why bother even showing up? What’s the point? You did neither yourself nor the instructor—whether it’s the professor, rabbi or higher authority—proper justice. You didn’t put in the necessary time and commitment. You failed. You can blame the rabbi or professor if you wish, dismiss the readings as boring (and sometimes they are), but the truth is that the burden of responsibility for the success of the class rests on the students, as well as those who fill the pews each Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. You have to do the work.
The High Holiday prayer book, or machzor, has a lot of assignments. Try some.
Many students, too, forget what they learned—or should have learned—at the end of the semester. Don’t be that student. If you’re going to attend services this Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, why not commit to seriously thinking about the readings for longer than a few hours or days? Now about until you attend the refresher course the following year?
If you treat the High Holiday prayers, readings, songs and meditations as a grand syllabus to which you regularly return, and do the assignments with conviction and careful thought, then when you enter the synagogue next autumn and ponder your fate, you will feel secure in knowing that you properly studied for the test.
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