My first rabbinic position was as an assistant rabbi. I started during the summer, right around now, during the post Tisha’Bav lull. I was a newly minted rabbi and was joining an established shul, whose rabbi had been in that position for nearly 20 years. Needless to say, I was a bit nervous how I would fit in with both the community as well as the rabbi.
My first week there coincided with the rabbi’s vacation, so I settled in slowly. I began drawing up potential classes, meeting with congregants, and getting to know the shul better. I hoped that by the time the rabbi returned I would have something to show for my having started while he was away. When the rabbi returned he called me into his office. We chatted for a bit, how the housing was working out, which people I had met, etc. When I interviewed for the position, I found the rabbi a bit cold, distant and ponderous, although I knew his congregants loved him. Now, meeting him as his assistant I found that my initial impression was off. He was very friendly and gregarious and with a smile shared his vast institutional knowledge with me. We must have talked for over an hour about the shul and his experience there. At the end of the conversation he said, “[T]here is one more thing I would like to discuss.” I was a bit nervous as to what this would be and hoped he hadn’t heard anything negative in my short time at the shul. I shouldn’t have worried. The rabbi explained that he wanted to offer me the opportunity to daven Mussaf for the shul on the second day of Rosh ha-Shana. I was flattered that he would ask me to do so, especially as I had started less than a month before his offer. The rabbi explained that when he came to the shul some 20 years earlier, his first major duty was to lead the Rosh ha-Shana teffilos, and he was extending to me the same honor. I was euphoric and ecstatic, and I look back now at that moment of pure and unbridled joy as one of naiveté, but also longing, knowing that those feelings and emotions were both misplaced and of incredible importance, and I recognize they are not coming back.
I went home, almost running the whole way, to tell my wife the good news. Being that leading the teffilos was a coming out party of sorts for me, I immediately began practicing. I got tapes of various chazzanim and spent hours each day memorizing the tunes. I recorded myself so that I could hear how I sounded. As it got closer and closer to Rosh ha-Shana, I became more and more apprehensive, viewing this, perhaps unfairly, as a make or break opportunity. My wife was enlisted to listen to Mussaf, over and over again. I had a friend in Yeshiva who was something of a Chazzan, and we spent time on the phone going over each tune I intended on using. In the end, I knew the entire Mussaf by heart, no small feat.
Finally, the day came and I would like to think that I acquitted myself well. Although I was standing for hours I barely felt it; in fact, Mussaf felt like it was over before it began. Afterwards, the rabbi congratulated me on a job well done and noted all the preparations that had gone in to making Mussaf what it was. He particularly enjoyed the tune I used for kaddish, and I still use it today.
I was, however, surprised at the comments by the congregation. Everyone I met complemented the davening, but I was startled to discover that although each congregant focused on something different—a particular tune or tefilah—they, almost uniformly, included a variation on, “and we got out so early” or “it was so quick.” At the time I didn’t know if they were being polite – perhaps they didn’t really enjoy it and that was all they could come up with. Over time, however, I learned that my congregants weren’t sugarcoating their praise or trying to come up with at least one redeeming quality from my Mussaf. Rather, the most important factor for most everyone during the Yomim Noraim, almost uniformly, was to make sure they were home by noon. There was no inspiration to be had, no greater truth to uncover. This was simply a group of people going through the motions, doing what they have always done, stuck in neutral. They were not challenging themselves regarding their rituals and beliefs and they were certainly not embracing this spiritual opportunity for what it was; they were simply docile functionaries, doing what they have always done and passively moving from one ritual to the next, allowing the only bit of concern and effort to be expended in worrying about what was for lunch and if taking a nap will lead to a sleepy year.
Upon first being exposed to this attitude, I wrote it off to people being unable to convey what they really felt. I came to realize, of course, that for most, teffilah, even on the holiest days of our calendar, isn’t all that meaningful to those sitting to our left and to our right. It is something to get through, something to have survived, and to then tell war stories after about what time we finished and how long the break was. Davening was yet another hurdle to get past, a brief stop on our way to do what really matters. I only realized years later, after my path to Orthopraxy was well along, why this mattered so much to me, why it still matters to me. It was true, I discovered, that idealism is often defeated in its confrontation with reality.