Yesterday morning I was in a very different place.
Yesterday morning I was standing in a woods, leaning on a tree, as a new Jew came up to chant Torah for the first time before the most accepting community on earth.
Chris Luber, a young college student, began this summer by immersing himself in the mikveh, then driving up to URJ's Camp Harlam in the Poconos, where I serve on faculty and where several of our kids go. Chris writes about his experience in an award-nominated blog post; it speaks to the power of camp as not only an engine of Jewish engagement but the kind of place where people who want to do Jewish meaningfully and powerfully want to gather.
So, on the last Shabbat morning of camp, Chris stood in front of hundreds of people, most of them no older than their mid-twenties, to chant Torah for the first time. He had been Jewish for less than two months. He kept looking at me and my fellow faculty-member, Rabbi Michael Holzman, and saying "I'm really nervous". And he came up to the Torah with a sense of yirah, of trembling before God and Torah, of the awesomeness of the task of chanting sacred words before a sacred community, and perhaps a bit of fear as well.
He was amazing. And as he recited the last word of the portion hundreds of tootsie rolls flew threw the air toward him, an outpouring of joy and amazement. To write this even now brings tears of joy to my eyes.
Chris taught us something amazing about what it means to prepare whole-heartedly. Here is a person who took his preparation--for his job, for the sacred honor of reading Torah, for being Jewish--with a sense of holiness. Not a striving for perfection, nor a sense of it being a chore, but a sacred and beautiful act. And how many of us come to the Holidays--or Judaism in general--as something tedious, or something intimidating, or something to be avoided? How many of us put aside self-preparation for prayer, perhaps afraid of what we might find?
Today we begin the process of preparing for prayer, introspection, to start anew. What would it look like if we began our preparation like Chris? What if we set aside both the idea of tedium and perfection and saw the holiness awaiting us?
This week at Shabbat we've been singing Dan Nichol's version of the prayer for our bodies ('Asher Yatzar'), said as preparation for the main service:
Thank You for for my life, body and soul
Help me realize I am beautiful and whole
I’m perfect the way I am and a little broken too
I will live each day as a gift I give to you
As we count the next days toward Rosh Hashanah, try to find a moment to repeat these words each day, to refocus and re-purpose the days ahead, that we may prepare and feel, on Rosh Hashanah, some of the same yirah that was present as Chris took the Torah as his own yesterday.