November 18, 2019

High Holy Days alert: Be prepared to look out the windows

This is the time of year when Jews begin preparing for the High Holy Days. Part of that preparation inevitably involves picturing oneself in services, head buried in the prayer book. This year, however, perhaps we should prepare for a different posture.

The prophet Daniel, Scripture tells us, prayed in the upstairs room of his home. Why upstairs?  Because that’s where the windows were, showing him the world outside, facing Jerusalem. For Daniel, real prayer calls attention to the real world, the happenings outside the sanctuary of one’s comfort zone: in the sobering suffering of the public square.    

The diversity of the Jewish community is a wondrous feature of our people; it’s amazing that we can be so different yet cling to the same Torah. No two synagogues are alike, just as each community sings with its own voice and animates our age-old duty to pursue justice in its own way.

However, despite this astonishingly variegated nature of communities, every single sanctuary in our tradition has at least one commonality: They all, thanks to Daniel, have windows. They all, by Jewish law, forbid a prayer setup that is, in essence, “soundproof” from the noise outside of the thick walls of our buildings.  

The realities of our world today demand Daniel’s prayer posture, gazing out the window, as our liturgy urges us to make teshuvah, to “turn” to our core obligations, as a people in Covenant with God.  

This year, we look out the windows of our sanctuaries and confront our world. We look out the windows to see a world torn by suffering and hatred. We look out the windows to acknowledge pernicious public policies that propagate bigotry, oppression and racial and ethnic supremacy upon the most vulnerable among us —­ the proverbial “ foreigner, widow and orphan.” This year, we look out the windows to see the world as it really is, rather than the alternate realities prevaricated by corrupt leaders who, we pray, may yet find their pathways to moral rehabilitation.

This year, recognizing that, in the words of the late Abraham Joshua Heschel, “the hour calls for moral grandeur and spiritual audacity,” we look out the window, with our eyes open, our ears attuned and our hearts willing to be broken. And with our hearts broken, may we allow the letters of Torah to enter through the cracks and provide meaning and strength for what in the year 5778 surely will be a fierce, urgent and critical fight for the values of truth, justice and peace.

As we approach this High Holy Days season, while we practice the inherently introspective tradition of cheshbon ha-nefesh, “taking account of our souls,” be prepared to look out the windows.

Rabbi Matthew Soffer is the senior associate rabbi at Temple Israel of Boston, is on the board of the Jewish Alliance for Law and Social Action and is a member of the advisory council of the Pluralism Project at Harvard University. Rabbi Joel Thal Simonds is the founding executive director of the Jewish Center for Justice and is the rabbi of the synagogue for the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Los Angeles.