by Moshe Morrison

My childhood memories of the great fall festivals of Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and Sukkot have little to do with the spiritual realities they were intended to convey. There was no genuine connection to the God who gave us our history, promised us a glorious future and reveals His supernatural presence to us daily. At Rosh Hashanah dinner with one side of the family the first night and the other side of the family the second night (It's a good thing that it's a two day celebration!) there was lots of incredible food for the body, but nothing on the menu for the spirit.

I remember "synagogue hopping." In the Baltimore Jewish community where I grew up there were numerous synagogues in close proximity. Many teens would spend a bit of time in one and then wander out and down the street to the next one where they could "schmooze" (socialize) with their friends awhile and then move on to the next one. We majored on "schmoozing," but minored on praying. It was not due to a lack of faith in God on my part. I was a firm believer in the God of Israel. It was just that what was happening in the synagogues did not seem to hold much more of Him than what was happening on the front steps.

My home life was "observant" in some areas, but not in others. The kitchen was strictly kosher, but television and lights were used on Shabbat (Sabbath) and holidays - but not on Yom Kippur! We fasted on Yom Kippur, not even brushing our teeth lest we accidentally swallow some water. All day was spent in the synagogue except for a few hours in the afternoon when we could go home and rest for a while. Most of the words in the prayer book were lofty and beautiful but they were like something from another planet.

I can remember wondering whether or not the old guy who was blowing the shofar would have enough breath to make it to the end. That seemed of greater significance than actually considering why we were listening to the shofar. Sermons were not terribly interesting or inspirational. To this day I cannot recall a single one. Yet I'll never forget the time that the score of the World Series was announced during a Rosh Hashanah service. Technically, no one was supposed to be listening to a radio or watching television or calling someone on the phone to get that information. Yet, somehow, miraculously it was provided.

There were little pledge cards in the seat pockets. They had the seat number printed on them and little tabs with different dollar amounts. You could just fold over how much you wanted to give since writing on Shabbat and holidays was forbidden. If someone was not in his reserved seat, we kids would often help him out by folding over the tab for a $10,000 donation.

Sometimes the cards were for purchasing Israel bonds, or for the synagogue itself. Some sort of financial appeal was always made since this was the only time of the year when the synagogues were filled with people who otherwise did not come. This is why one had to purchase seating for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. The draw of these two holidays was powerful enough to get people to "pay to pray." (By Sukkot many had had enough of "religious services" and there were plenty of free open seats.) Most of my Sukkot memories are of wine and honey cake in various synagogue Sukkahs.

Blowing the Silver Trumpets
Lifting up the Scroll on Rosh Hashana
Rosh HaShanah in "Liberty Heights"

One of the deepest resonances I have of Rosh Hashanah is ironically, connected to a scene from a movie. "Liberty Heights" is a Barry Levinson film about race relations, anti-Semitism and growing up Jewish in Baltimore in the mid-50's. The father of the featured Kurtzman family runs an illegal gambling racket and is the owner of a burlesque theater in Baltimore's notorious red-light district known as "The Block". On the high holidays he attends services at a magnificently beautiful synagogue with a distinctively domed ceiling that soars majestically above the heads of the congregation within. (The movie was made in Baltimore and these scenes were shot in a synagogue that my family attended and where I began my Jewish education at the age of 7.)

In the film, it just so happens that Rosh Hashanah falls on the same day that the new Cadillacs are displayed for the first time in the dealers' showrooms. In spite of the glorious inspirational surroundings and as important as this holiday is, Mr. Kurtzman just cannot stay seated. The call of the Cadillac is too strong. He leaves the sanctuary and makes his way to the Cadillac dealer and purchases the latest model as he does every year.

I am sure that Levinson's film characters are composites of his family members and people he knew. The incidents portrayed are a mixture of actual happenings and creative story telling based on stereotypical behavior patterns of the community in which he grew up. Growing up in the same world just a couple of years behind him I feel like I know these same people. They were my relatives, my schoolmates, my neighbors.

Cadillacs and Holidays

Beyond my personal connection with the synagogue, there is something about this Rosh Hashanah/Cadillac story that I find very compelling. There are three prominent points.

1. Mr. Kurtzman is a successful businessman, well respected in the community, most likely a generous contributor to Jewish causes. With those things in mind, the nature of his work is not considered unusual or wrong even though it is totally at odds with the character of the God of Israel. Yet this is not a factor in his synagogue attendance on Rosh Hashanah. We never hear him repenting for promoting carnality and lust. He's doing the right "religious" thing but it doesn't change his behavior or touch him where he primarily lives his life. (Jeremiah 7:1-11)

2. While Mr. Kurtzman would insist that his religion is important to him and that he is a faithful Jew, there is no evidence whatsoever that he has any perception at all of the reality of the God of Israel, much less a vital connection with Him. The new Cadillac is the reality with which he connects. It is not esoteric or ethereal, but solid and embraceable, therefore, providing the satisfaction he needs. We are multi-faceted beings, both physical and spiritual, with physical and emotional needs. However, without genuine spiritual input, the end result is death. No matter what material satisfaction we receive, it can never be enough. (Psalm 106:14,15)

3. The new Cadillac is a symbol of all that the holidays should be, but are not for Mr. Kurtzman. The fall festivals should be a time of personal renewal and revival - when damaged places in our lives are repaired, relationships healed and God's bountiful blessings are received (though not necessarily Cadillacs). This is a season of harvest and preparation for new realities on a personal as well as a national level. The evidence of God's love and care should draw us near Him in gratitude rather than sending us in search of substitutes. (Jeremiah 2:11-13)

Expecting His Presence

My intention here is not to point a finger of blame at those who should have conveyed a spiritual reality but did not. I wish to caution us all that we can make the same mistakes if our approach to celebrating God's ordained festivals is without humility and expectation. Humility avoids the attitude of "I know this stuff. I already know how to do it." But instead says, "Lord, speak to me. Give me something new and fresh. Keep me from presumption." And an expectation that since God ordained these times, there is a release of grace and spiritual reality when we enter with right hearts.

No one ever told me to expect more than tasty dinners on Rosh Hashanah. We never would have wandered from synagogue to synagogue to meet with our friends if we could have hung out with the Lord. So much of what we fill our lives with would seem so trivial if we really understood how much of God is available to us.

I'm not trying to spiritualize everything and deny our humanity (also a gift from God). The cultural and social aspects of our celebrations are important as long as they don't usurp the focus and become idols. As Shaul said of Passover in 1 Corinthians 5:7, but which is equally applicable to the fall festivals, "Let us celebrate the feast with sincerity and truth." We can do so because of what Messiah Yeshua has done for us!

By Moshe Morrison

Donate ... to the work of Moshe Morrison at Ohalei Rachamim

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14:13 02Oct07 Charlotte Hart -
Moshe -- Loved the article. It's strange, however, how my childhood life as a southern Christian actually has a lot in common with your life as a child. Maybe it is the times in which we live that sifts out all the fluff, leaving us with having to face the bold truth.

16:50 19Oct07 Gloria Ludwick -
Moshe, I appreciate your sharing childhood memories in this article. Your insights and words stirred my heart and desire to share the good news with those that seek to know the truth of salvation that can only be found in the saving knowledge of Yeshua.

01:51 05Nov07 Shirley Braggs -
Moshe, your article is so much a portrait of what can happen to us all if we lose focus on what the celebrations and the liturgies are about. They are filled with Yeshua and His grace and mercy, yet, we can lose sight of that if we approach them with that attitude of presumption as you said. Thank you for the reminder to remain humble and diligently sincere in our approach to the Moedim. There is great joy just in getting to walk out the beauty of Yeshua's ministry to us all.

Also in this issue of the newsletter:

Dan Juster: The Afterlife
Eitan Shishkoff: A Defining Moment
Asher Intrater: Righteous Government in Israel