How to Get into the High Holidays State of Mind

September 15, 2020Rabbi Julie Zupan

Getting in the right frame of mind, or head space, for prayer services is not easy. Whether you’re running from your office cubicle or your home office, settling into a synagogue sanctuary or into to your comfiest couch, where the clergy appear through the modern miracles of Zoom or Facebook or YouTube, readying our hearts and minds for prayer takes intention. 

Years ago, in the first months after college graduation and still a few years from applying to the rabbinical program at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, I worked in Manhattan for a large corporate law office. Back then, junior staffers like me were always expected to be available for work, and many of us worked late into the night every night, ordering dinner and then car service on the corporate account. That was my daily schedule too, except for Friday nights.

On Fridays, I would slip away close to 5 p.m., stopping at the local bakery for a fresh, fragrant challah, and settling into the pews of my synagogue. I was always among the first to arrive. New to the community, I knew no one, yet, and so I sat alone on a bench, quietly breathing out the hectic workweek, and with each breath feeling more relaxed.

I could have stayed at work till the last moment, squeezing out another 15-minute billable unit and then rushed into my seat in time for L’cha Dodi. But I craved the moments of quiet time to center myself before the congregation filled the seats and the prayers began.

In rabbinical school we studied the text from the MishnahMishnahמִשְׁנָהLiterally “repetition.” Mishnah is a Jewish legal code edited by Rabbi Judah HaNasi in Palestine in 220 C.E. It is the first Jewish legal literature after the codification of the Hebrew scriptures around 90 C.E. Also called “Torah Shebal Peh,” “Oral Torah” or “Oral Law.” , written about 2000 years ago, which tells us that “the pious ones used to wait an hour before praying.” (Mishnah Berakhot 5:5). Apparently, it’s not only harried office workers in suits and uncomfortable footwear who need time to transition into prayer; even “the pious ones” needed time to get into the right head space!

The AmidahAmidahעֲמִידָהLiterally, “standing.” A central prayer of the worship service, often recited privately. A chain of blessings in which the first three and final three are always the same, and the intermediate blessings change based on the day (i.e., Shabbat, weekday, holidays). Also called the Sh’moneh Esreih (literally, “eighteen”) and HaT’fila (literally, “the Prayer”).  , the string of blessings recited at the heart of every prayer service, begins with one line uttered as precursor before the prayer really begins. We step back and then forward, singing, “Eternal God, open my lips so my mouth will speak of Your praise.” We pray that we should be ready to pray.

So much has been written both about the challenge and the necessity, especially during this pandemic, of setting boundaries between work time and family or personal time, between one’s home office and one’s home. How do we do that emotionally? How do we shift both our gaze and our attention?

Here are a few strategies I’m planning to try to get in the High Holiday mood this year:

  • Shutting down my computer a few hours early and taking a walk around the block
  • Setting up a home sanctuary space, as suggested by Rabbi Elyse Goldstein
  • Getting dressed up for the holidays, even though I won’t be seen outside my household
  • Spending time mulling over the URJ Reflection Project, a tool for making these holidays extra meaningful
  • Cooking Jewish foods that make me nostalgic for new years past and make me feel hopeful about the possibility of a sweet new year

One more way I’m planning to transition to prayerfulness is by listening in on Brooklyn Jews’ cinematic meditations for the High Holidays. Designed to help us retain the pathos and grandeur that in-person holiday rituals often evoke, these meditations promise to ground us in the meaning of this moment. Their Rosh Hashanah Pre-Service is available starting Sept. 16 at 7 p.m. EST, and the Yom Kippur Pre-Service is available starting Sept. 26 at 7 p.m. EST at brooklynjews.com/highresolution. Each video is roughly 40 minutes long.

Don’t have a (virtual) place to spend the High Holidays? Find synagogues that welcome non-members for their virtual Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur services and programming.

May we each enter this new year with settled minds and open hearts.

Find additional tools to make this year’s High Holidays particularly meaningful, and subscribe to ReformJudaism.org's holiday emails to receive additional content about the High Holidays, including recipes, family activities, prayers, and more.

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