The Serenity High Holiday Prayer

Rabbi Nechemia Schusterman presents thoughts on the theology of the Yamim Nora’im, Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur

Once again I found myself sitting in the basement of a church attending my Al-Anon meeting (wondering why there are no Jewish places to do this at) and as we read the serenity prayer I had a high holiday epiphany. It always bothered me the apparent tug-of-war – to be kind – or contradiction – to be more exact – about how we approach the high holy day season at least when viewing things from the lenses of Chassidus.

Is this a “let go and let G_d” kind of holiday i.e. recognize that G_d is in charge and I don’t control anything, even my forgiveness for my behavior and sins. (Turn our will over to God – Step 3.)

Or is this a time to be taking responsibility for our actions, like the steps teach us, to be taking moral inventory (step 4), confess our sins (step 5), and make amends (step 8?) Seems kind of contradictory: are we supposed to be doing the work or are we supposed to be giving it over to our Higher Power?

You see, the mainstream Jewish world keeps it simple (another recovery slogan “KISS” – Keep It Simple Stupid). It is a solemn day, be sad, be mindful, pray as if your life depends on it – because it does – and your mood and approach to the day/s of awe should reflect it.

Somehow the Chassidim have to complicate it. True, it is a serious day, and there is a lot riding on it. At the same time, you must approach the day with joy and celebration.

We sing the confession prayers (Ashamnu/Al Chet). Why? Because we are celebrating the fact that unlike human beings who have finite patience and after 46 years (fill in the age that you are) of confessing the same thing, and then not changing much, most humans would run out of patience and tell you, “Thank you for apologies but I am 46 years tired of hearing it.”

We sing while confessing because Hashem says, “It’s Ok, I am infinite, you are a part of My Infinity so as I have endless patience and tolerance, I will extend that to you. Indeed, that is a sing-worthy kind of truth!
So, which one is it? My problem to repent for or G_d’s problem and I just need to let it go?

Another baffling part of the prayers? Why do the prayers state our confessions in a plural manner? Ashamnu, “we” have sinned? Shouldn’t it read “I” have sinned? Or similarly, Al Chet Shechatanu – for the sin that “we” have committed before you… who is the “we”? Me, myself and I stopped working after 3rd grade?

R. Pinchas of Koritz once explained that this plural word usage is because G_d, on some level, is our partner in our crime for which we are repenting. How so? Simple, if G_d is the Master of the Universe and He controls everything and nothing happens without Him cosigning on it, then whatever circumstance (my trauma, abandonment, lack of Jewish education, abuse, molestation or fill in the blank with your personal experience) that led to my disillusionment is partly His fault.

I am still the party responsible for repairing it but G_d is enough a part of the story that He is included in the royal “we!”

Again, mixed messaging? My problem to fix? Or G_d’s problem and let me step aside humbly and just let Him do the work?

The answer, ironically, is in the Serenity Prayer itself and like most Jewish questions; Is it this way or that way, the answer is, “yes.” Meaning it is both. God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.

You see, there is my side of the street and there is His (and his) side of the street. (There is another recovery reference for you.) I am responsible for the things that are my business. That includes the “things that I can change” and those things are where I must show up as humbly, honestly, working, searching, admitting, humbly asking for help, and making amends (steps 4-11) or as has been declared in the program, “cleaning house.”

Where I can do something, I must, and where I cannot, then I simply do, as the program suggests, “MYOB – Mind Your Own Business.” Not look at G_d’s side of the street. G_d has His calculations for why He sent me on this journey. I have already made a decision to “Trust God” – the first three steps – and have decided to give over my will to Him, and begged Him to restore me to sanity because I know that only He can.

G_d is in charge of His stuff and I am in charge of my stuff. G_d did what He did because He understood that He must do what is best for Me even if I cannot understand it. That is where I have to just “accept the things that I cannot change,” and that is where the prayers challenge us to own up to our shortcomings.

Conversely, there are times when I focus on “the courage to change the things that I can” and that is the heavy lifting that comes with going to Shul and doing the work. Confronting the parts of ourselves and our behavior that could use fine-tuning and that are within our ability to be fine-tuned.

Perhaps the greatest prayer we need to pray for on the holiday is for the “wisdom to know the difference.” To be able to know what is G_d’s business and what is mine.

About the author – Nechemia Schusterman is Director/Rabbi at Chabad of Peabody, Massachusetts.

Chabad of Peabody, MA websiteChabad of Peabody, MA – Facebook


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