Distraction seems almost as much a part of High Holy Day services as the distinctive nusach, melody, or the presence of certain prayers we say at this time of year. The synagogue is likely to be as crowded as it ever gets, and we will be surrounded by families and friends greeting one another in what they seem to think is a whisper. There will probably be a few kids running around, perhaps adding their own punctuating remarks to the service — I still smile when I think of the heartfelt “Yaaaay!” that issued from a tiny person at the conclusion of a long prayer one year at the Naval Academy’s Jewish chapel.
Services are often noisy, they’re long, and the sanctuary is packed with more people than it sees all year. The liturgy is different, we haven’t heard the melodies since last year, and the English translation paints a picture of kings and judges and sin and redemption that may seem archaic to our modern Western sensibilities. It’s not easy for me to get into a prayerful state of mind.
This year, I intend to try something a little different. Instead of getting frustrated when my attention wanders to the miniature family reunion happening two rows over, the kid in a kippah and a necktie making faces at his sister, or speculation about the lunch menu, I am going to try to simply notice that my focus has drifted. Then I will gently regather my thoughts and bring them back to the prayer service. I’ll probably have to do this many times.
I’m very curious to see whether/how this mindfulness exercise will change my experience of the service. By acknowledging that my attention is going to wander and that when it does, I can gently pull it back, I hope I can get away from viewing every inevitable little distraction as a crack in my brittle concentration. I intend to cultivate a springier sort of focus, one that allows me to take in all parts of the synagogue experience — including the “whispered” chatter, the fidgeting people, and the way the light flows in through the windows. I want to be present as fully as I can.
That’s my intention, anyway. We’ll see what happens when I actually walk into shul, pick up a machzor, and join with my people in welcoming the new year.
#BlogElul, the brainchild of Rabbi Phyllis Sommer, invites participants to chronicle the month leading up to the Jewish High Holy Days through blog posts, photos, and other social media expressions.