At the Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services of most congregations, the participants seem to be well-dressed and well-connected. Especially when the congregants are singing or speaking in unison, it looks as though the gathered multitude is joined together as one. But looks can be deceiving.
As a psychologist who for many years has counseled thousands of Jews of all ages before and after the High Holidays, I've found that these Days of Awe tend to bring up a fascinating variety of complicated and important emotions, such as:
A sense of loss that someone you sat with previously is no longer here.
It might be a loved one who died, or a former spouse or lover who's now become distant, or a family member who no longer wants to be part of this congregational gathering.
A sense of insecurity that your life isn't progressing as you hoped it would.
Whether you've had financial setbacks, romantic disappointments, or physical setbacks, you might be feeling at the High Holidays that you've fallen off the path you had hoped would be a smoother ride.
Comparison thoughts to someone who seems to have it all together.
Surrounded by the larger community at the High Holiday services often means running into your impeccably groomed friend or relative who always makes the rest of us feel one-down. Or someone whose well-behaved and brilliant kids make you feel self-conscious about your own complicated children. Or someone who easily found a great partner in life even while you remain alone and searching.
Mixed feelings about being in a formal synagogue service.
Especially for the many Jews who rarely attend Shabbat services during the rest of the year, there is a feeling of outsiderness and discomfort as a result of being outnumbered by people who seem to know the prayers, rituals and melodies with so much familiarity. In fact, I've heard from many "twice-a-year Jews" that they spend a sizeable portion of the High Holiday services wondering if the rabbi, the cantor and the frequent temple-goers might be judging them for being so estranged from the community much of the year.
The essential Jewishness of these mixed feelings
Even though many people feel self-conscious or "insufficiently holy" as a result of having some of the ambivalent feelings described above, in fact Jewish tradition (especially at the High Holidays) honors and welcomes these essential human struggles. Even our name as a people, "Yisra-El" literally means "the people who wrestle with the Ultimate One."
Also, in the Talmud (Berachot 34b) it says that the holiest place is reserved for those who are somewhat broken or who sometimes miss the mark, and that only the person who is struggling with human imperfections can stand in the holiest place of importance where the completely righteous person is not privileged to stand.
So this year at the High Holidays, be aware that Jewish tradition (and most psychotherapists) suggest you bring your imperfections, your ambivalence, your comparisons, and your sense of loss or brokenness to stand fully present in the company of others who are also human, imperfect, and seeking to grow.
You may need to look beyond the distraction of who's wearing what or who seems to be having an easy year or a hard year. You might focus instead on the fact that nearly every soul in the room is longing to connect with a deeper sense of meaning, connection, repair, and a love that transcends all limits.
To help you (or a hesitant family member or friend) to deepen one's personal experience of the High Holiday services, here are four quick things you can do whenever you are feeling alienated, self-conscious, distracted, bored, or like a flawed outsider at this year's gatherings:
1) Find a word or phrase in the holiday prayer book that lifts you up, moves you, angers you, offends you, comforts you, confuses you, or makes you curious and reflective.
For at least a minute or two, let this phrase or word penetrate deeply into your heart and soul. See if it opens you up to a deeper curiosity of what it means to wrestle with the mysterious Infinite Source. Then after the services are over, ask a few of your favorite teachers, friends, rabbis, library texts or Google sites how to explore this word or phrase in a deeper way. Let it be an opening to a year of digging deeper for truth, wisdom, and healing.
2) Find a melody or a sacred sound that connects you with the long history of imperfect human beings who are willing to repair what's broken in themselves and the world.
It might be an ancient melody, or the loud sounds of the shofar, or the quiet moments of meditative reflection. But that one moment can connect you with thousands of years of Jews praying together for guidance on how to improve themselves and the world around them. That one elusive moment of seeing what you need to work on in yourself and in your corner of the world will make the entire service worthwhile.
3) Find a moment of connecting with at least one other soul who is also feeling like an outsider.
Just like Queen Esther (who proclaimed in the Purim story, "Maybe helping my people is the ultimate reason why I was brought into this world"), so might there be a moment at the High Holidays when your warm eyes, your caring handshake or hug or your words of honest validation for another person will spark the strength and vitality of someone else in the congregation who was feeling alone or broken before they shared these holy moments with you. You might find that by showing compassion for another fellow congregant, your own sense of being alone and apart begins to lessen or disappear. As a result of your moments of showing your hesed ("lovingkindness"), you might find that your long-standing sense of outsiderness can begin to heal.