Rabbi Waxman rightly points out some of the cognitive dissonance we confront in the High Holiday liturgy that makes it hard to get the most from services.
Largely written in the Middle Ages for a population who viscerally understood their vulnerability and dependence upon the whims of a powerful lord or sovereign, the liturgy speaks of God as a king who wields life and death, and therefore whom we hope to please out of fear, but also as a loving father who wants our well-being, and therefore of whom we hope to please out of love.
There is another cognitive dissonance as well. I gave up calling God “He” long ago. Yet substitute language seems inadequate. Somehow God as our parent, and sovereign seems too impersonal. God as our mother and queen sounds too pagan to my ears.
Nevertheless, I love the melody for “Avinu Malkeinu,” which is Hebrew for “Our Father, our King.” Something happens within me when we sing it. My rational and source-critical mind quiets and something else moves me to tears as I chant the words, “Forgive us…write us in the book of a good life…have pity on us and on our children…answer us, save us…”
Rabbi Waxman is right that there is power in community. I feel the community praying, weeping with me, from the depths of their hearts. Such power comes not only from sharing the emotions, the vulnerability. That power is not only psychological. It is also spiritual, an energy that, when released, uplifts us.
It is that energy, ruach (spirit), that is the spiritual high that the High Holiday liturgy was created to offer. It is transformational. When we reach that place, our priorities shift. For a moment, we become clear, deep in our souls, about who God intended us to be; who we want to be. Such highs come when we open ourselves to that experience, accepting that music and mood can overwhelm our rationality to transport and transfix us.
I agree with Rabbi Waxman that hope and fear combined with community can be a powerful incentive for lasting change. But there is also another element. The ethereal connection our soul has with its Maker.
When we allow our souls, rather than our over-functioning intellects, to direct our High Holiday experience, we may find the real high in the High Holidays, the transformational high, we desperately seek.