Like everyone else, rabbis have nightmaes. We do, however, have our own special twist on some of them.
You know that dream where you’re sitting down to take a final exam in a class you forgot you signed up for, and didn’t attend all semester? Rabbis have their own special version of that dream. We dream that the High Holidays (Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur) have snuck up on us without us noticing somehow, and we’re standing in front of the congregation with no sermon. (I’m pretty sure other rabbis have this dream also). Last night, I got a new twist on it.
Over time, I’ve discovered that I’m pretty good speaking extemporaneously. I may spend hours, or days, planning what I’ll say, but I can actually do most of the talking without notes. And I can, if desperate, usually come up with a fairly coherent sermon on the spot. Therefore, the idea of standing before a congregation unprepared does not fill me with appropriate terror anymore. At least, so says my subsconscious.
Side note: One of my professors in rabbinical school used to quote his wife, who wrote children’s books, as getting to a point in the plot and then saying, “let’s make it worse,” meaning, let’s get the protagonists into deeper trouble. My subconscious was apparently taking notes.
So if standing unprepared in front of a congregation is not adequately terrifying, how is the situation made worse? Yom Kippur falls on the same day as Christmas (by the way, this can’t happen), which means I’m holding services in some hotel in a beach community. I had to fly to get there, and for some reason was bringing my cat, Artemis with me. Except I left her on the plane when I changed planes in Cincinatti. Which completely freaked me out. But I didn’t realize this until I reached the hotel. I spend hours on the phone trying to figure out where she is, and chasing around the airport, at which point I realize I’m hours late for the services I’m supposed to lead. Not only that, but I’ve forgotten it’s Yom Kippur and had 3 cups of coffee (Yom Kippur is a fast, no food, no drinks). So I finally get to the chapel at the hotel, to a bunch of somewhat displeased congregants, who were wondering if I’d ever show up.
The little chapel in the hotel has prayerbooks, but they are all a mishmash of various differnt ones, so page numbers and wording will all be different. But the congregation all seems okay with that. They tell me that’s how they do it every year: I sh0uld just pick my favorite prayerbook and they will follow along in theirs. And wonders of wonders, they have the prayerbook I’m most familiar with. I’m feeling better again, because I can fake my way through the service. So I open up the prayerbook, and begin the first Yom Kippur prayer before I find my place, because I know the beginnning. Except, as I flip through, I realize I’m having a little trouble reading the Hebrew…and it doesn’t seem to be laid out the way I expect. In fact, I realize this must have been a very early hand written copy of this prayerbook, when it was in draft state (this is a prayerbook, by the way, which was composed in the last 15 years, and was never handwritten, but a word-processed manuscript would not have served the needs of my subconscious). So I had a lot of trouble navigating, and only then discovered that in this draft of the prayerbook, the prayer I was singing had been left out for theological reasons, and I’d reached the limits of my memory. Not only that, but certain congregants were correcting me in ever more disapproving tones.
To make matters worse, the congregation was getting bored and wanted to go to the beach, so I was trying to lead services while on the bus to the beach, which was distracting because the bus driver wasn’t stopping at all the stops, and people were getting annoyed with him, and just started jumping out the rear door at whatever point they wanted to get off, even though the bus was moving at 30 miles an hour.
Fortunately, at about this point, my alarm went off.
I’m hoping you find this as humorous as I do, in retrospect. Otherwise, this is deeply self-indulgent navel-gazing in public, which could be fodder for another nightmare.