There I was, standing in the back of a hotel ballroom, completely mesmerized as the Pastor in his grey suit and thick rimmed glasses yelled passionately into the microphone. The music was blaring and people were dancing and singing. And, I, a rabbi, stood there in awe with tears streaming down my face. We were at the Rosen Plaza hotel in Orlando, Florida. I was there for the Hillel New Professionals Institute, and they were there (in the ballroom next to ours) for the 20th anniversary of their Pentacostal Church. For days, while in various sessions and meetings, I could hear them rocking out during their many services throughout the day, and I (not so secretly) had been longing to partake. I found another Rabbi who seemed interested and we ventured in through the double doors, the music pouring out into the hallway with intense force.
What we witnessed can hardly be explained with words. There were choreographed dances performed by young people in beautiful attire, there were people dancing and singing spontaneously, with their eyes closed and hands in the air. People brought their entire selves. And they brought it HARD. The floor was shaking with the sounds of the music and the dancing, and the room was filled with joy. “I want you to look at your neighbor and say 10 things you’re grateful for!” the Pastor yelled, “‘One, that God got me up this morning. Two, that God got me up this morning. Three, God got me up this morning.” He continued to 10 and people laughed and nodded their heads with the truth that he was speaking. Simply being alive is reason enough to dance, to sing, to bring our full selves to everything we do. Simply being alive is a miracle, a gift.
As I looked at the children in the room, I thought about my religious upbringing. My earliest and most formative Jewish memory did not involve dancing, ecstatic prayer, or a deep connection to community. But, it did involved Doritos and excruciating boredom. After savoring every bite of my nacho cheese flavored corn chips during our snack break at Hebrew School, I would gently tear open the seam of the bag and lick the inside, making sure to ingest every crumb. In Hebrew school on Mondays and Wednesdays (and sometimes even Sundays), we learned the same things every year in a stale old building until the sun had set. Our 10 minute break, my Doritos time, was truly sacred. I remember the exact taste, sound, and feel of the chips as I ingested them. In Hebrew school, and beyond, my Jewish life was saturated with boredom and the smell of Chanel number 5 perfume from the elderly women who filled the pews of my synagogue. It was far from inspiring, spiritual, or engaging. It wasn’t until I was an adult that I found Jewish environments that were spiritual and even ecstatic. And yet, these experiences can seem few and far between, which makes me wonder: Without a little bit of boredom, would it even feel like a Jewish experience?
During these Days of Awe, we recite slichot, prayers of supplication and forgiveness, some even at midnight or sunrise. They are prayers meant to inspire the soul-work of this time, to inspire us to dig deep into ourselves and our lives. In it are the words,
בן אדם מה לך נרדם
Humankind! Why do you sleep?
These words, and the call of the Shofar, act as an alarm clock to our souls. A reminder to be present in our lives and fight the desire to stay stuck, bored, or small. Similarly, Rebbe Nachman, 18th century Hasidic master from Ukraine, says that true teshuva, return to ourselves which we are aspiring to in this time, is declaring your readiness to exist. The work of this time, then, is deeper and at the same time more simplistic than repentance and asking forgiveness. It’s about waking up and declaring our readiness to fully be in the world.
Back in the hotel ballroom, the charismatic Pastor called out into the microphone, “Clap your hands if you love Jesus!” There was a sudden uproar of applause, a standing ovation even, from African American men and women dressed to the nines. In my complete and utter awe and gratitude of my surroundings, I looked down to realize that I, a rabbi, had accidentally clapped when prompted by the charismatic Pastor. (oops!)
May we be blessed to bring our full selves into this space. To shed the security blanket that is boredom, to wrestle with powerful and difficult things you may read in the machzor, and the beautiful and painful things that may come up in ourselves. Whatever it is, may we be blessed with the courage to bring it into this space...hard, stepping into what it means to be truly alive.