The liturgy of the High Holy Days overwhelms even the most literate of Jews; the piyyutim (liturgical poems) and their alphabetical acrostics arrive one after another and the special insertions for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are fresh and foreign each and every year. Years ago, I learned from an experienced chazzan (prayer leader) that the initial instinct to feel overwhelmed is one we all feel. The chazzan’s suggestion was to look for the poetry and beauty in whatever part of the service you can and leave the proper recitation of each syllable to the people in charge.
Once we free ourselves from needing to say everything, we can immerse ourselves in the mastery, allusion, and powerful metaphors of these services. We can discover echoes of Biblical and Rabbinic literature and connect to themes that speak to us as mortal, flawed human beings in awe of the magnificent natural world that surrounds us. In this spirit, the endless acrostics of the piyyutim take on new meaning: they encapsulate for us an expression of wonder, gratitude, or hope, quite literally from A to Z. As we stand humbly before God on the Birthday and Judgement Day of the Universe, we know that we cannot manage to express completely how we feel. The alphabetical recitation allows us to imagine that we have done our best to come close to the impossible standards we long for.
The pinnacle of our ritual year occurs on Yom Kippur afternoon after the service of the Kohen Gadol (High Priest). At that point we express our joy and relief that the heart of the Yom Kippur ritual has been performed appropriately and we offer an acrostic prayer with wishes for the year ahead. In synagogues that retain the core of this sometimes difficult part of the service, this moment can be one of both singing and dancing. I translate this poem according to the Sephardic rite and send it to our entire Camp Ramah in Wisconsin community, from Netanya and Jerusalem to LaCrosse and Louisville, from Berkeley to Newton and everywhere in between with wishes for “a year of light, a year of blessing, a year of joy, a year of gladness, a year of splendor, a year of counsel, a year of song, a year of life, a year of purity, a year of honesty, a year of honor, a year of learning, a year of sovereignty, a year of beauty, a year of celebration, a year of humility, a year of fruitfulness, a year of jubilation, a year of holiness, a year of earning, a year of satiation, a year of tranquility, a year of perfection.”