I remember my first high holidays away from home when I went off to college. There was a synagogue right across the street from campus, so I walked through the doors on Erev Rosh Hashanah and eagerly found a seat in the first row, ready for whatever new experience was coming my way.
I quickly found out that I didn’t know any of the tunes, and no one said a word to me the whole time. I was crushed. I went back to my dorm room and decided I wasn’t going back the next day, that I’d rather just spend the day isolated in my room instead of feeling alone in a room full of people.
Surprisingly, even though the rabbis push us toward davening in community whenever possible, the strongest models of real prayer in our tradition are of people praying alone. Chana, from the Rosh Hashanah haftarah (the reading from the Prophets linked to the weekly Torah portion), becomes the rabbis’ paradigm of what real prayer can be — crying aloud, speaking words of desire and longing straight from her heart, no minyan (quorum of 10 people needed for prayer) required. Her frustration, her anger, her despair, everything she’s feeling in that moment reaches a breaking point and spills over into prayer, as she realizes how much she wants her situation to change and how little power she has to make that reality possible.
So many of us are carrying the weight of loss coming into these high holidays, along with our longings for what this experience should have been. Even if we’ve been telling ourselves for the last few weeks that these high holidays aren’t going to feel like last year’s, those expectations are hard to set aside.
But – I know that real prayer and connection are possible, even when we’re alone. And perhaps because we’re alone, new possibilities will emerge that wouldn’t have been accessible if we were all together in one space. May your new year be full of discoveries that bring you closer to community and closer to your own heart. Shanah tovah.
Rabbi Lauren Henderson is the new rabbi at Congregation Or Hadash. She comes to us from Chicago where she served as Mishkan Chicago’s Associate Rabbi and Director of Family Learning and Spirituality.