An Honor and a Blessing for the New Year

September 22, 2009

Since we are in the days where repentance and reflective honesty are paramount, it is timely that I admit something that I regret –  I do not enjoy receiving an honor during the services at my shul.  Whether it is a regular Shabbat morning service, weekday Shacharit service or the Chagim, I do not particularly enjoy being called for an Aliyah or some other participation in the ritual of the service. When the gabbi walks among the congregation I usually avoid eye contact and appear otherwise distracted, less an accidental locking of eyes has me inadvertently participating in the service. For this I ask forgiveness.

With that said, he High Holidays are often the most challenging service for me to avoid receiving an honor, because rather than the impromptu request, the notice of honors for the Chagim come via letter/email a few days before the new year.  There is no way to slip out of the sanctuary to avoid the request, nor is there a gaze to be avoided. Whether embraced or not, the honor arrives and a decision must be made: accept it or kindly decline?

Now there are two reasons I have always tended to avoid receiving an honor. First, I struggle with the level of my own piety and worthiness to take a role in a service of meaningful prayer and ritual. Yes, I may be a dues paying member of my shul in good standing with a so-so attendance record, but status certainly does not equal merit. The second reason is more basic and more selfish. I prefer to sit in a back row, blending in with the congregation, undistinguished and unnoticed. Enough of the rest of my Jewish life has me “up front” in various leadership roles, and during services I enjoy the pleasure of being anywhere but up front. Left in my own individual world of prayer I find that I can be a bit more relaxed and even a bit more spiritually-oriented. It is not that I want to be an island unto myself, but I would prefer to be on the more remote part of the beach of that island.

So typically, even during the High Holidays, I turn down the offer of an honor during services. But this year was different, and all because of a short conversation with a new friend.

You see, a few weeks back when notice of my honor arrived (now in the thoroughly modern mode of email), I was attending a small Jewish conference outside of Baltimore. Chance had me lamenting my predicament with a new friend who happens to be a professional in the Jewish community. However, if I thought I was going to get sympathy I got quite a different response – instead of an empathic response, I received a challenge. The professional, who also happens to be a Rebbetzin, pushed me to reconsider both my response to the request as well as my underlying rationale for declining it in the first place.

Notwithstanding my hesitation, she argued, I should not separate myself from my community.  Rather than view the honor as an affront to my self-perception of my own piety and an encroachment of my personal prayerfulness, I should look at it as both an obligation to my community and an opportunity for me personally. As a Kohen, it was my responsibility to fill a role that is proscribed for me in fulfilling part of the Torah service. And it is also an opportunity for me to embrace my involvement in my spiritual community and the respect that I have for each member of that community. If I make a mistake, if I falter, the opportunity is even greater – to show that we come to our respective honors with humility and with our flaws, but nevertheless with a sense of commitment.

She did not need to make her case for too long. I barely knew this woman but her words were true and her persuasiveness, even in its brevity, was enormous. Later that day I sent a message back to my Rabbi. I was wrong in turning down the honor, I said, and I shared with him that if it was not too much an inconvenience, I would like to claim what I had previously declined.

So this past weekend on the second day of Rosh Hashana, I sat in the sanctuary waiting to be called to my Aliyah. In all honesty, it was a moment filled with mixed emotions.  As I reflected on the story of the binding of Isaac that we were about to read, I thought about the test that Abraham faced and the commitment to G-d he demonstrated that day. A test far greater than the simple request to fulfill an honor during a holiday service, Abraham did not hesitate in his own service to G-d.  And for his commitment, he received an unparalleled blessing that endure to this day.

With that in mind, as my name was called and I walked towards the center of the sanctuary, I thought of my friends and family who haven been tested over the past year and who continue to be tested. The friend who lost a spouse and the children who lost a father. The women who have beaten breast cancer only to find themselves once again in a fight for their lives. The couple with a child who has a rare medical disorder and who are dealing with so much uncertainty (except for the certainty of love they hold in their hearts for their child). Those tests, they are enormous; they cannot be declined, they must be survived. They are tests that call out for more than honor, but for blessing.

So as I kissed the Torah with my tallis and began to recite the blessing, I could not help but think of my friends, including my newest friend who had challenged me to say the very words I was about to recite. I had forsaken my back row in the sanctuary (at least for a few minutes) to stand before the congregation with my anonymity uncloaked and my hesitation unlocked. It was a new year, a year for new commitments, new undertakings and yes, unfortunately even new tests. But it was a time for new blessings, even if they were ancient words spoken by a new voice.  And as my head swirled with the thoughts of friends old and new, old words and new circumstances, my lips pursed to form load and clear words…

Bar’chu et Adonai hom’vorach!

May each of us find honor and blessings in the year to come.  And to my friend who has already taught me of the blessing of an honor – thank you.



  1. Seth,
    A usual you share from your heart and cut to the chase. It is an honor and a blessing…
    Wishing you and your family a sweet new year. Don’t forget to savor the honey.

  2. Seth — a beautiful reflection which I just shared with my friends on Facebook. G’mar chatimah tova.

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