It would be foolhardy for a person to walk into a gym and, having never before picked up a barbell, attempt to bench press twice their weight. It would be considered even more absurd for the same person to spend 45 minutes lifting and flexing the maximum of weights, abandon the gym, and wonder quizzically why, three weeks later, they lack the bulging pectorals and washboard abs that they expected from the promotional photos.
And yet millions of American Jews will show up in synagogue this year and do the intellectual and spiritual equivalent: show up, expect to be spiritually uplifted and emotionally re-regulated by a few hours in a sanctuary. No doubt, they may be uplifted and adjusted. But the effects are, most certainly, fleeting at best.
For the High Holidays to have their greatest impact, it’s best to come to synagogue in the right headspace — mentally prepared for the prayer-and-text marathon the shulgoer is likely to engage in. High Holidays, in the right frame of mind, can be life-changing. An aimless person can leave with direction; someone in a malaise can find new purpose.
To get the desired effect from synagogue services, it takes a little soul work. There are many brilliant spiritual works that will adjust your attitude for the Yamim Noraim (Days of Awe). Here are my favorite five for 5784. (Note: For folks who eschew the synagogue in favor of another outlet for spiritual change at the beginning of Tishrei, these recommendations work equally well. In fact, I daresay that these books may succeed at moving you even better than a sermon, a prayer or the blast of the shofar.)
As always, with matters of personal growth and spiritual transformation, your mileage may vary. Either way, the time to order one or two good books that will help a person to put in the work they need is just about now.
“On Repentance and Repair,” by Danya Ruttenberg
Getting right when you’ve been wrong is perhaps the most dominant theme of the introspective period leading up to Rosh Hashanah and culminating at Yom Kippur. But it’s not so simple as “owning mistakes and saying sorry.” Rabbi Ruttenberg has a fresh take on apology that’s also 1000 years old as she applies Maimonides’ “Hilchot Teshuvah–Laws of Repentance” to the modern world. She asks, for example, how the #MeToo perpetrators could properly atone for their errors. Ruttenberg also asks big questions about atonement for national sin, considering the Holocaust and South African reconciliation, and Black slavery in America. This book will make you approach Yom Kippur in a different way.
“Torah Without End,” by Michael Strassfeld
One way to deepen the holidays is to find a new and different read on Torah. “Torah without End” is a collection of interpretations of Torah portions, prayer passages and holidays from 93 teachers, scholars and rabbis; some you may know (Art Green, Naomi Levy, Shefa Gold) and some who may be the next generation of spiritual lights (Dorothy Richman, Sam Feinsmith, Melila Hellner-Eshed). Some of these essays are brief, but they accomplish the essential work of uplifting and inspiring — like a motivational message on your bathroom mirror. This is the kind of book you read in dashes and spurts, and fill with post-its and flags to hold the page of that thing you really liked and want to re-read again and again.
“This is Real and You Are Completely Unprepared,” by Alan Lew
I imagine there are people who have read this cover to cover over a day or two. I cannot; I refuse to. In fact, in four attempts, I have never finished this book. I read four or five pages. I stop and ponder over the meaning of existence and God and human growth and obligation and fallibility. Lew is poetic and instructive and guru-esque but also deeply personal; you feel you know him. The book’s title is perfect, and yet the book really will prepare you for the High Holidays, even if you, like me, never actually finish reading it. One might argue that this book, if properly read, is never finished.
“Inspired,” by Rachel Held Evans
Held Evans’ book is part spiritual autobiography of a woman’s struggles with the faith of her upbringing, part biblical poetry and midrash workshop. She is going on the same quest that all persons of faith are on, but she brings her readers along to expose the painful and difficult parts; when she ultimately arrives at some new place, they feel like they’ve arrived too. Held Evans was a Christian, but both her approach to the Bible and her struggles with faith and misogyny are universal to the point of feeling deeply Jewish.
“Beginnings Anew: A Woman’s Companion to the High Holy Days,” by Gail Twersky Reimer and Judith A. Kates
A better subtitle for this book would have been “25 essays that re-interpret everything you thought you ever knew about Sarah, Hagar, the Akedah, the biblical scapegoat ritual and the story of Jonah.” The scholarly essays in this book were all written by women, but their intended audience is anybody interested in unreading the biblical texts so that they might re-read them in new and improved ways. The essays I found most perspective-shifting were those by Devora Steinmetz, reading Jonah against Elijah; Naama Kelman, who envisions the scapegoat’s journey into the desert as our own journey; and Marsha Pravder Mirkin, exploring the Rosh Hashanah textual selections as explorations of empathy. But again, there are many modes and methods in this book for all manner of readers. PJC
Rabbi Mark Asher Goodman serves spiritual communities in Pittsburgh and Erie, Pennsylvania. He is the author of the recent book “Life Lessons from Recently Dead Rabbis: Hassidut for the People.”