A few years ago, my buddy (and now rabbi) Benny Katz was leading daily prayer and, as he began the service, took out a little ceramic dish and a small round bundle of something called copal. He lit the disk and a waft of smoke plumed throughout the small chapel we were in.
A shot of panic hit me. Can he do that? In Jewish prayer? Light … incense? I was immediately unsettled and anxious.
And then he began to chant the familiar prayers and I began to feel … spiritual. And in a way that I hadn’t felt before. I was surprised to be feeling spiritual in a synagogue. And the reason was because the basic paradigm of what a synagogue was and how it behaves was upset by some smoke and a pleasing odor. My normal expectations were broken, and they allowed for something better to take their place.
It is something I think we all need to think about as we go into High Holidays. I don’t mean to say that we should demand that the rabbi light incense at shul this year. I mean that we all need to realign our expectations for High Holidays — the itchy, uncomfortable clothes; the stuffy, serious atmosphere; the long, possibly boring service. We need to conceive of it differently than we presently do.
Most of us presently conceive of synagogue attendance as our act of religious observance. Maybe the prayers are familiar and comforting. Maybe the act feels like a worthwhile sacrifice in order to please God. Maybe we love the rabbi’s sermon; or that one song the cantor sings. Maybe we like kiddush.
Few of us walk into our synagogue’s main sanctuary with a deep sense of entering into spiritual space and time. We do not place that experience on par with arriving at Dharamshala to meditate with Buddhist monks, or standing on a beautiful beach to see the sunrise over the ocean.
We expect to be bored and so we are bored. We do not expect to feel spiritual and so we do not feel spiritual.
But guess what? It is spiritual. Those words that we say connect us to our ancestors and our homeland and to God and to each other. There is a kabbalistic teaching that one of the many names of God begins with the opening words of our morning prayer and concludes with our final line of “Adon Olam” — that the act of prayer is the act of revealing one of God’s secret names out loud.
Even when we aren’t aware of it, when we are most distracted or unaware, we are engaged in a deeply spiritual act. But how much more valuable an experience it would be if we went into it, eyes wide, fully awake to the potential of that spiritual time and space.
The last parsha we learn before Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, Nitzavim, includes in its outset, “All of you stand here this day” — and concludes with Moses adjuring the people to “choose life.” We stand here this day with intent and purpose to live our lives with connection. And holiness. And, yes, spirituality.
That is the act of choosing life: choosing to be elevated and uplifted; choosing to make the most of the special moments of sacred prayer. Reframing and rebooting ourselves to be more in tune with the spirituality that exists in the world but that we do not notice. And if you need to, light a little incense. But, please — do it at home, before you leave for shul. Don’t get me in trouble with your rabbi. pjc
Rabbi Mark Asher Goodman is rabbi at Brith Sholom Jewish Center in Erie, Pennsylvania. He lives in Pittsburgh.