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    Dolls without heads

    Franz Kafka wrote a rebuke in his “Letter to His Father”:

    “I could not understand,” he told his father, “how, with the nothing of Judaism you yourself possessed, you could reproach me for not making an effort to cling to a similar nothing.

    “It was indeed, so far as I could see, a mere nothing, a joke – not even a joke. Four days a year you went to the synagogue. I yawned and dozed through many hours (I don’t think I was ever again so bored, except later at dancing lessons) and did my best to enjoy the few little bits of variety there were, as for instance when the Ark was opened, which always reminded me of the shooting galleries where a cupboard door would open in the same way whenever one hit a bull’s eye; except that there something interesting always came out and here it was always the same old dolls without heads. That’s how it was in the synagogue…”

    Kafka is speaking for many others. Unfortunately the services do nothing for them. Out of boredom, they yawn, doze and watch the clock, hoping against hope the day will pass more quickly.

    Even that is not so bad so long as it does not become an undercurrent of conversation that can well up and drown out an earnest chazan who is pouring heart, soul and voice into his efforts for a less than appreciative congregation. When this happens, there is little point in going on with the service.

    Some advocate constant gimmicks to stimulate a jaded spiritual appetite, but this trivialises a serious liturgical moment. It is more important for congregants to recognise that their role does not begin with merely turning up for the service and mechanically going through the motions. They should recall the principle (Pirkei Avot, ch. 5): l’fum tza’ara agra – “According to the effort is the reward”.

    One has to bring something to the Yom Kippur service in order to get anything out of it. The greater the personal effort at preparing for the day, the more meaningful it will turn out to be. Once started, the work on one’s soul should be so all-absorbing that Yom Kippur is over before we can complete the task. We should be so spiritually busy that we don’t even notice the dolls without heads.

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