I began today, as I mean to (but usually don’t) start most days, with Shacharit [the morning service]. I put on my tallit [prayer shawl], wrapping myself in the mitzvot [commandments]. I laid my tefillin [the Greek is “phylacteries,” but they’re basically leather straps and boxes that go on the head and upper arm] and felt both the weight of my sorrow and the lifting of a burden. I have missed this, the very physical act of getting ready to pray. I whispered to myself in Hebrew, “I betroth you to Me forever” and felt tears prick my eyes. I stood in the sanctuary, my head connected to my heart connected to my mouth by cloth and leather and words, and watched the sunlight stream in through the stained glass windows.
The service itself is full of rise and descent. We “cry from the depths” to God. We ask God to lift us up, to grant us the desires of our hearts. We beg God to hear our voices and gives us that for which we ask. And then…we wait. Some of us take an aliyah [honor relating to the Torah service], a word that means “going up,” literally to the bimah [stage/altar area] but metaphysically to a higher spiritual plane.
We rise. We sit. We bow. And then…Tachanun [supplications]. Here was the most poignant part of my morning: leaning forward to rest my forehead on my arm, which balanced on the seat in front of me. We tell God that God is our help, that we cannot do this alone, whatever “this” is. I have often wished, in my moments of most needing to feel God (something that so rarely happens for me in any sure or concrete way), that Jews could kneel in the service. Tachanun hearkens back to the days when the priests prostrated themselves in the Temple. This High Holy Days, when I actually prostrate myself fully on the ground in front of the Ark holding the Torah, what will I feel? Lowered? Or elevated?
The Beit Midrash [House of Study] at my school is in the basement. It is windowless but bright, lined with books and full of tables. This morning, it was empty. My studies should be raising me up, bringing me closer to my lofty goals, but today, it feels like sitting in the basement staring in vain at a book I can’t stomach the idea of reading.
In Jewish tradition, one who moves to the land of Israel is said to be making “aliyah”– that “going up” word again. He or she is an “oleh” or an “olah.” Can binding myself ever more tightly to the people Israel and our traditions be a spiritually similar elevation? Or, by moving yet further away from mainstream culture, am I isolating myself? Am I condemning myself to an eternity without the most intimate of human relationships in my quest for Divine recognition and self-satisfaction?