Finding My Religion (with slight apologies to R.E.M. – and none to atheists)

I blogged about my Rosh Hashanah experience last week. I wondered why I hadn’t shared this part of me with the world outside of my family until now. Perhaps it is because it has been such a deeply moving time in our synagogue, perhaps because of the absurd “Charter of Values” the incompetents in our Quebec government wants to pass (for those unaware of this latest from my province, I unabashedly offer an opinion piece from the Ottawa Citzen which explains it and – obviously – opines). Perhaps just because this year was just outstanding in every way.

But regardless of “why now”, I am continuing this theme to recount Yom Kippur, our Day of Atonement and how that unfolded in shul.

The morning was a typical service; we sat in the balcony overlooking the sanctuary. We choose those seats for several reasons: it tends to be quieter (most parents keep seats downstairs where they can quickly take their young children out when the kids get bored, as well as easy access to the numerous rooms set up on the main level for kids to do arts and crafts and play with others); it also gives us “front row” seats as opposed to being fairly far from the bima (“stage” in a synagogue). There are seats in the main sanctuary which are reserved for the board, the staff, elders, and volunteers. The synagogue’s membership being vast, they open the hall across the vestibule (the hall is where the parties take place and is located just  across the sanctuary and through the lobby), build platforms to circumvent the 3 steps that lead down to the hall, and add the hundreds of chairs to accommodate those who sit downstairs. It is innovative, effective, but for us, too far from the “action”. Though the sound system is superb, I like to see as well as hear what’s happening. Not being vertically gifted, I usually end up craning my neck to see over those in front of me. The balcony offers a better view.

Yitzkor service is held on Yom Kippur as well as various other holidays on the calendar. I wrote about it in my Rosh Hashanah blog as well. Yesterday’s was no different, and it followed Rabbi Nadler’s sermon about the soul, which truly led nicely into the commemoration of those departed souls we were about to observe. Rabbi Nadler became the “interim” rabbi when our Rabbi Cahana was stricken in July of 2011, and he’s done a great job filling in. His humor came through yesterday when he discussed the different concepts of “soul” and how one school of thought has souls actually bringing back those departed as they were in life. “The worst Zombie movie you could imagine,” he said, “millions of Jewish souls coming back, and probably hungry. Their first words might be, ‘anyone know where we can get a bite to eat?'” As we were observing the fast, this elicited all-out laughter from the congregation.

After yitzkor, we were informed that the planned sermon by Rabbi Cahana was to take place after mincha (afternoon service) so of course, I knew I would return. In past years, we have not gone back for the end of Yom Kippur, which has been missing in my life; as a child, I went only for the end, slipping into the local shul to hear the prayers and the shofar to signify the end of the fast.

But yesterday was different. I was finally going to go – whether or not I was accompanied by my family. And in fact, I ended up going alone. One kid was sick, the other was tired, so I got dressed again and headed into town. I ended up arriving very early, walking into the sanctuary to find Rabbi Cahana and his beautiful son talking quietly. I hurried over to greet them both, telling the Rabbi I was there to get a front row seat. He smiled and asked me the time. I told him it was 4:45, and I had wanted to get there before the 5:00 service. He gently corrected me, telling me it was to take place at 5:30. I grinned at him and said, “well now you know how eager I am to hear your sermon – a whole 45 minutes early!”

I found an unreserved seat in the 2nd row in the main sanctuary. After the “main event” of morning services, most of the congregation does not return, which stands to reason if they are preparing break-fast meals. I sat in quiet contemplation until the sanctuary filled up and we were about to start.

After some initial prayers, Rabbi Cahana was introduced. Prior to beginning, his daughter had handed out texts of his sermon (found here), and upon skimming it, I saw that it was 3 pages long. We sat back as he was wheeled to the front, the microphone positioned to his level, and we waited. He began to speak but the mic didn’t work. One of the synagogue’s co-presidents stood, took the mic off its stand, tested it and held it directly to the Rabbi’s mouth. Rabbi Cahana’s wife stood behind him, holding the text in front of him so he could read. And we listened.

His voice was soft at times, louder other times. His words trailed off at times when he got tired, but he soldiered through. He spoke unhaltingly, painstakingly reading the text he had composed, and the sanctuary – full by now – was so silent, one could have heard the proverbial pin drop. We had the text in front of us, at times it was necessary to follow along, but what came through – besides the words – was his determination. He had written the words. But rather than have someone else deliver them, he was going to address his community.

One passage in particular had me fighting tears:

I obviously live now in a reduced place. I am confined, constricted, refrained and contained. That may be the reality objectively to everyone else. But it is not mine. I feel my life force coming through. No barriers but me in freefall happiness. I’m jumping here and everywhere endlessly and without restraint. A mind believes what it wants to believe, and my mind believes that G-d owns the future and gives it to me now. I feel like a pioneer, introduced to my body at first glance and able to enter each sub-atomic particle and chart its dimensions. I have been allowed a world of timelessness, a Shabbos forever to investigate the pure unmitigated energies of life. Why be anywhere else? We live in the possible, not the improbable. This is why a person can look forward to the day of judgment and not tremble beneath it.

That sums up our rabbi. His strength, his perpetual optimism, and as Rabbi Nadler said in his introduction, his humility in the face of severe adversity.

There were no ovations afterward, but we all felt a welling of pride and gratitude. And hope – could this be the foretelling of our rabbi’s eventual return to the pulpit? I wouldn’t put anything past him!

The service went a little long because of Rabbi Cahana’s sermon but no one noticed. Oh, no one except Rabbi Nadler who jokingly lamented, “if there is one night we have to finish on time, it is this night!” He then asked if there was anyone from the Guinness Book of World Records, as he was about to embark upon about 30 pages of prayer within 30 minutes. For those unfamiliar with Jewish prayer, it is not unusual to find a word in any given prayer that is sung in a prolonged minute. Yes, one word. One minute.

We did make it, and it was beautiful. What was most moving (next to the Rabbi’s sermon) was how the children finished our evening. Those youngsters who had been in a room next door with several adults overseeing their crafts, made an entrance, singing a joyous song. There is nothing like the voices of young children singing but at the end of a long day spent in reflection of its purpose, the effects were more emotional. They made their way down the aisle holding baskets of synthetic and handmade white flowers, passing out these offerings to the congregation. When they finally got up onto the bima, the Ne’ilah service was said (“Ne’ilah” literally means “closing” or “locking” in Hebrew. Recited during late afternoon and twilight, it expresses the feeling that the special Heavenly gates, that have stood open all day to receive our prayers, are gradually being closed. The community is now filled with confidence that their sins have been forgiven, and that they can begin the new year in a state of spiritual purity). And when Cantor Benny’s powerful singing concluded, the shofar was sounded in a loud, prolonged ancient trumpeting, and Yom Kippur had drawn to a close.

The most important words of the day, however, came when Rabbi Nadler took the microphone: “go eat!” he proclaimed, and I watched the congregants pop gum, candies, and other various pocket-sized offerings in quick acknowledgement of the rabbi’s proclamation. I made my way out of my row, received and bestowed the famous Montreal two-cheek kiss on those with whom I exchanged good wishes (from our rabbi, to the cantor, to other congregants I knew), and walked out with one of the synagogue’s former VPs, a man I’ve known since he was interim principal at my kids’ elementary school. We wished each other a happy and healthy year, solemnly acknowledging that those were the important ingredients. When we parted to go to our respective cars, I said, “Mr. S? One more wish for you.” He raised his eyebrows and I said, “Bon appetit.” He grinned wide and said, “oh, you know it, baby!”

As he lives in the same part of the island I do, I assumed I would see him on the road home, as we pulled out of our parking spots the same time. Mr. S must have been hungry – he was gone by the time I hit the highway!

I reflected on my drive home. Listening to quiet music, accompanied by a bright half-moon in a clear sky, it occurred to me once again: for me, it is not only the religion but the feelings that my attending synagogue encompasses. The sense of belonging to a community larger than just the congregation, but belonging to that congregation of familiar faces as well. The sense of acknowledging something we understand to be bigger than ourselves. And the deeply held faith that keeps us driven. The faith that has kept Rabbi Cahana alive but also living his life to its fullest and continuing to achieve new heights in recovery. The faith that there are others who share in this experience and gather to recognize its inner and outer power.

And the faith that despite those who scoff at religion – whether it be government or those among us who would like to see religion invisible or even abolished – we have something special as a cohesive group: an identity that enhances, not defines, our selves and our souls.

To those who observe: G’mar Hatimah Tovah

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