The Fall Holidays of 5779: How were yours?

Image: Israeli Rabbi Stacey Blank blows the shofar. (Photo: Rabbi Stacey Blank)

So how has your Fall cycle of holidays gone this year?

We began back in August with the month of Elul, thinking upon our relationships and our own behavior, mending what we could.

Then with Selichot, things got serious: we said penitential prayers, the tunes changed, the clergy and the Torahs wore white.

When Rosh Hashanah came with all its pagentry, a combination of awe and celebration, we welcomed the New Year and hoped for a good year to come.

The Ten Days of Awe sped past, with so much to do and so little time to do it.

And soon it was Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement – how was that for you?

Now we are almost at the end of Sukkot. The weather is beginning to chill even as our hearts warm. It’s good to spend time with friends and family, good to be grateful.

As the ancient cycle turned this year, the world intruded again and again with upsetting news at home and abroad. A giant earthquake and tsunami wracked Indonesia; a different kind of earthquake rocked Washington, D.C.

As the final festivities of the fall cycle approach (Shimini Atzeret  Simchat Torah, anyone?) where are you? What about you has changed? What has gotten better? Any reflections to share with us here in the comments?

 

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What is Teshuvah?

Image:  An archer takes aim with a bow and arrow. (skeeze/pixabay)

Teshuvah means “turning.” When we “make teshuvah:”

  1. We notice what we’ve done wrong,
  2. We acknowledge that it is wrong,
  3. We take responsibility for it,
  4. We apologize and make amends, and then
  5. We make a plan for not doing it again.

SIN in Judaism is a slightly different concept than in Christianity. The Hebrew word chet (sounds like “hate” only with a spitty sound on the front) is an archery term. It means that I aimed at something and I missed.  In Judaism, the focus is not on what a terrible person I am for doing something, the focus is to aim more carefully when I am next in that situation.

Very Important:  The point of the teshuvah is not to beat ourselves up, it’s to make ourselves better.  Taking responsibility and expressing sorrow are important but the act of teshuvah [repentance] is not complete until I do better.  According to Maimonides, until I am in that situation again and behave differently, I cannot be certain that my teshuvah is complete.

In Judaism, the focus is on doing, not so much on one’s state of mind. It does not matter how lousy I feel about what I did, it matters that I address what I have done with the people I’ve hurt and do what I can to make sure there are no repeats.

Follow-through is important: it is not enough to be sorry for things I have done or failed to do. What is my plan for the future? How exactly am I going to do better in the coming year?  Sometimes this means asking for help, calling a rabbi or a therapist to talk about strategies for change.  Sometimes it means getting into treatment, or joining a 12 step group. A fresh pair of eyes and ears may see options that I don’t.

As I said above, the point of all this is not to beat myself up, it’s to make the world better by making my behavior better. Do not wallow in guilt, just note what needs to change and make a plan for change. When I feel embarrassed at what I have done, that’s part of the process. Making teshuvah will help with the shame.

Each day of our lives is an opportunity to do better, to rise above the past. As Rabbi Tarfon used to say, “It is not incumbent upon you to finish the task. Yet you are not free to desist from it.” No one does any of this perfectly. The point is to improve.

What is Cheshbon Hanefesh?

Image: An accounting ledger filled out in blue ink.  (cpastrick/pixabay)

Cheshbon hanefesh is usually translated, “the accounting of the soul.” We do cheshbon nefesh every year during the month of Elul, the month leading up to the High Holy Days, because without taking inventory, how can we know what we need to change?

Hebrew is an interesting language in that it has both a “holy” life and a “secular” life. I put thise words in scare quotes because I think those are often artificial categories – in fact, for a Jew, the interaction of the holy and the ordinary is often the place where Torah comes to life.

Cheshbon has many meanings, but the one you will most often hear on the street in Israel today is “the bill.” I ask for a cheshbon when I am done with my meal. It lists what my party has ordered, the cost of each item, and a total.

Nefesh is another word with sacred and secular meanings. (The ha in front of nefesh means “the.”) In the prayer book, nefesh is usually translated as “soul,” although in the Bible it is often more correctly translated “life” as in:

וַיִּבְרָ֣א אֱלֹהִ֔ים אֶת־הַתַּנִּינִ֖ם הַגְּדֹלִ֑ים וְאֵ֣ת כָּל־נֶ֣פֶשׁ הַֽחַיָּ֣ה ׀ הָֽרֹמֶ֡שֶׂת אֲשֶׁר֩ שָׁרְצ֨וּ הַמַּ֜יִם לְמִֽינֵהֶ֗ם וְאֵ֨ת כָּל־ע֤וֹף כָּנָף֙ לְמִינֵ֔הוּ וַיַּ֥רְא אֱלֹהִ֖ים כִּי־טֽוֹב׃

God created the great sea monsters, and all the living creatures of every kind that creep, which the waters brought forth in swarms, and all the winged birds of every kind. And God saw that this was good. – Genesis 1:21

This version translates v’et kol-nefesh hakhayah as “all the living creatures.” It is not usually understood to imply that the swarming things of the deep have souls like human souls, rather, it indicates that they are alive – many of them, for just a brief time.

So perhaps when we talk about the month of Elul as a time for heshbon nefesh, we can expand a bit from the perhaps precious notion of “an accounting of soul” – and ask, “What does my life add up to right now?”

  • In what ways have I made the world better? In what ways have I made it worse?
  • How do I affect the lives of others? Are their lives easier or harder because of my behavior?

The questions themselves take us out of the realm of self. We ask not “who or what has been good for me?” but “for whom or what have I been good?”

Cheshbon hanefesh is not for beating ourselves up. Jewish tradition ascribes to each human being an infinite, unmeasurable worth. There is no such thing as a “worthless” human being in Judaism. This is not about our worth as individuals; it is about the worth of our behavior as individuals. What are we doing with our lives?

Cheshbon hanefesh is the essential prelude to meaningful change. If we approach the process humbly and sincerely, it can provide us with a map for more worthy living.

 

 

 

 

 

 

High Holy Days for Beginners – 5779 / 2018

Image: Rabbi Michal Loving of Temple Beth Orr in Coral Springs, FL blows the shofar to announce the new year. Photo courtesy of Rabbi Loving.

The High Holy Days are coming!

Rosh HaShanah, the Jewish New Year, begins at sundown on September 9, 2018. It will begin the Jewish Year 5779. Here are some basic facts to know about the holiday season:

Happy Jewish New Year!

Rosh HaShanah is the Jewish New Year. Observant Jews will go to synagogue that day, and will do no work. Many other Jews may take the day off for reflection and celebration. The mitzvah [commandment] for the day of Rosh HaShanah is to hear the sound of the shofar [ram’s horn.] The basic greeting for the New Year is “Shanah Tovah” [literally, “Good Year!”] For other greetings, see A Guide to High Holy Day Greetings.

First, Prepare!

Preparation for the High Holy Day Season will begin at sundown on August 10 with Rosh Chodesh Elul. Jews worldwide take the month of Elul to examine their lives in the light of Torah, looking for things about ourselves that need to change. For more about preparation, look at Books to Prepare for the High Holy Days and Teshuvah 101.

Days of Awe

Rosh HaShanah begins a very serious time in the Jewish year called the Days of Awe. Unlike the secular New Year, which is mostly a time for celebration, the Days of Awe are an annual period for reflection and for mending relationships and behavior. Synagogue services use solemn music and urge Jews, individually and collectively, to mend what is broken in their lives, and to apologize for misdeeds.

Teshuvah: Sin & Repentance

The Jewish understanding of sin is that all human beings fall short of their best selves from time to time. When we do wrong, even accidentally, we are required to acknowledge what we have done, take responsibility for it, and take steps to assure it will not happen again. This process is called teshuvah [literally, “turning.”] Teshuvah 101 explains this concept in more detail – it isn’t about beating ourselves up, it’s about change for the better.

Yom Kippur

The Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur, is the culmination of the process of teshuvah. Observant Jews fast for 24 hours and spend the day in synagogue, praying and reflecting on their lives. Other Jews may take the day off for reflection as well. Yom Kippur is a day for atonement for sins against God and/or Jewish law; it only atones for sins against God. We atone for sins against other human beings through the process of teshuvah (taking responsibility, apologizing, and taking steps to prevent a recurrence.) If you have a health problem that requires regulation of food and/or liquids, do not fast – there are other ways to observe.

Tickets for Prayer?

Very important: Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur are the days of the year when the greatest number of Jews attend synagogue. Because of the high attendance, many synagogues do not have seats for visitors for their main services. If they have a few extra seats, they sell tickets for those seats to offset the extra expense of the holiday (members pay their share via membership dues.) Note that synagogues often make arrangements for reduced rates for membership for those who wish to participate in synagogue life but who cannot afford full dues. Consider joining a synagogue – they offer much more than High Holy Day services.

There are several options for attending High Holy Day services for low or no cost. You can always call the synagogue and ask; they may be able to direct you to a synagogue which offers free High Holy Day services.  Some synagogues offer free High Holy Day tickets for college students or members of the military. If you are in a city in the USA, call the Jewish Federation or other local Jewish agency for information about locations for free or low-cost services. Many non-orthodox synagogues stream services on the Internet.

Get the Most out of Your High Holy Days

To get the most out of the High Holy Days, observe the month of preparation that leads up to them. Attend services at a local synagogue (guests are welcome at regular services). Ask yourself “What about my life and behavior needs to change?” and make those changes. Mend relationships that can be mended, and do your part even in those relationships that cannot be mended at this time. Consider reading a book about the High Holy Days, or keeping a journal. Like everything else in life, the more you invest in this experience, the more you will get out of it.

There is much more to know about the High Holy Days; this is just a beginning. If you are curious about Judaism, this is a great time of year to contact a synagogue about adult education classes, since many classes in synagogues start immediately after the holidays. If you are interested in an online basic introduction to judaism, check out Learn About Judaism Online.

In October I shall offer an online class, Introduction to the Jewish Experience, through Lehrhaus Judaica. The class meets on Sundays but is also available via recordings. (Full disclosure: I am the instructor.) I will post information about registration as soon as the new catalog is up.

L’Shanah Tovah: I wish you a fruitful beginning to the New Year of 5779!

Where Will You Be for the High Holy Days?

Rosh HaShanah begins this year at sundown on September 9, 2018.

Every pulpit rabbi is busy with sermons and service plans. Every synagogue staff is busy with preparations.

For the “Jew in the pew” September may seem a long way off.

Are you interested in attending services this year? If you are not a synagogue member, now is the time to start thinking about where you would like to attend. For every person who will want a seat in an urban or suburban synagogue, there may be several people who want that seat. That’s one of the reasons that synagogues sell tickets for the big High Holy Day services. And that is why you should start looking for your service very soon.

Don’t want to “pay to pray?” There are likely free services available in your area if you live in a city in the U.S., but again, you may want to locate those services sooner rather than later. Call your local Federation or Jewish Community Center office and ask what they know about free High Holy Day services.

If you have been thinking that this is your year to join a synagogue, I strongly suggest that you visit synagogues before the High Holy Days. This has several advantages:

  1. Your dues will include your High Holy Day tickets.
  2. You will not be stuck in a strange synagogue for the High Holy Days.
  3. Summer is a good time to visit synagogues. The High Holy Days are a terrible time to visit synagogues.

If you are a synagogue member, now is the time to remind yourself that this is a stressful time of year for synagogue office staff. In addition to their regular work, they are preparing mailings, service books, and handouts. As the membership agreements come in, they have to deal with people’s questions about tickets, their complaints about last year, their worries about this year, and assorted kvetching about the weather and the parking last year. If you aspire to be a mensch (and you should aspire to be a mensch!) BE NICE TO THOSE PEOPLE!

So yes, the High Holy Days are coming sooner than you think. Be menschen, that you may be sealed for goodness in the Book of Life!

Holiday Blues?

Image: Shiny blue ornaments surround a small white tea light.

Reader Teme reminded me that a lot of people are suffering from holiday blues.

Holiday Blues happen to both Christians and Jews. I don’t know if they happen to Hindus and to Muslims but I suspect they do, because they’re really just an outgrowth of human nature.

Holidays come with many associations, baggage along for the ride. We have memories of actual holidays past and a lot of programming for how holidays ought to be.

Good holiday memories can be a blessing to treasure forever, but if they contrast sharply to our current situation, they can be painful. Remembering good times with a loved one is more complicated after that loved one is gone.

Bad holiday memories (the year Aunt So-and-so said she didn’t like her present, the year an obnoxious cousin made everyone cry, the creepy guy under the mistletoe, the year everything went wrong) can spill into the present moment. It’s reasonable that gift-giving might be fraught after Aunt So was nasty, or that the taste of latkes brings back memories of the obnoxious cousin.

Expectations about a holiday can be particularly difficult. When the bar is set too high, there’s no way actual experience will measure up. If you are convinced that “every normal family has a beautiful Chanukah with tiny, perfect gifts and no grease fires in the kitchen, no crying babies, nothing but cozy warmth” then of course your Chanukah will be a disappointment. Same for Christmas: if it’s supposed to be “the most magical day of the year” you are set up for failure. When cranky old Uncle Ned starts in about politics, or the kids start fighting over a toy, or the special food flops, then yeah, it’s depressing.

And even more so, if you are alone for the holiday, or childless again this year, or this year there isn’t money for special anything – the holidays can be painful.

So what can we do? How to fight back against the holiday blues?

  1. Let reality be real. If there is a specific grief ruining your holiday this year, it may be that all you can do is accept it. Feel the emotions, don’t fight them. Be honest with anyone who asks. Stay away from people who demand cheer from you and hold close those who understand your particular pain.
  2. Count your blessings. Especially if the issue is more diffuse, notice the good things in your life. Instead of holiday cards, write thank you cards. Tell the people who have been good to you specifically why you are grateful for them. Choose to notice what’s right, instead of focusing on what’s wrong.
  3. Look outside yourself. Focus on what you can do for other people. Soup kitchens and shelters need extra volunteers on holidays, so that those who celebrate those days can do so with their families. Call around, and see who needs volunteers. Say kind words to people who need kindness. If you have money, share it. If you have food, share that. Looking outside ourselves can break cycles of destructive thoughts.
  4. Take care of yourself. If you have health issues, do what you can to take care of yourself. Be sure to eat and sleep – but don’t live to eat or sleep. If you need to see a doctor, and that’s possible, then see a doctor. If you can’t afford to see a therapist, remember that the Suicide Prevention Hotline is available 24/7 at 1-800-273-8255. For those who are deaf or hard of hearing, you can call 1-800-799-4889. It’s OK to call: You are the person they are waiting to help. And yes, if you take medications of any sort, take your meds!
  5. Take a chance. If there’s something you are sort of looking forward to and sort of not, take a chance and go. Reframe “it could be awful” as “it could be pretty good.” Then give yourself an out: it’s OK to leave quietly if it makes you miserable.
  6. Get some exercise. Move more than you have been moving. For some that might be a walk around the house. For others, that might be a six-mile run. Choose something do-able that will push you a bit. You will sleep better and feel better.
  7. Put on some happy music. Hate Christmas carols? Put on some music that YOU like. Maybe dance to it (see #6 above.)
  8. Meditate. When did you last try meditation? The website gaiam.com offers a nice primer for beginners which lists several ways to meditate. Meditation is good for body and soul; for some people, it’s like a “reset button” in their day. Even if it hasn’t worked for you in the past, what do you have to lose?
  9. Pray. One of the great resources for Jews, and for Christians as well, is the Book of Psalms. There are 150 of them, and they address every emotion of which a human being is capable, from quiet happiness to rage. Dig around in there and see if you can find words that express your feelings. Naming a feeling is powerful. Praying that feeling is even more powerful.
  10. Go to services. Unlike the High Holy Days, you don’t need a ticket for Jewish services in December. See what the prayers have to say to you. Listen to the Torah portion (if it’s a daytime service) or the psalms in the evening service. Sing any songs you recognize, even if you are not a singer. Breathe with the congregation. For Jews, services are a respite from the relentless Christmas message in December.
  11. Keep Shabbat. And keep on keeping it. Part of what happens to us with holidays is that we build up those expectations and load them onto one day, or one week a year. Then, as I pointed out above, they are doomed to fail. However, Shabbat comes to us every week with its warmth and light. Figure out what “keeping Shabbat” means to you, and practice it faithfully. Some weeks will be wonderful and others will be “meh.” Some may be a bust – but there’s another Shabbat right around the corner, there to give you rest.
  12. What else? I’m sure readers can suggest some other treatments for the Holiday Blues. What works for you?

I’m sorry you have the Holiday Blues. I am having a nice Chanukah this year, but I have had my years when Christmas or Chanukah or Passover or the High Holy Days have worked on my last nerve. The feelings are real. I hope that something on this list helps.

 

The Essence of Teshuvah

Image: A portrait of Maimonides, also known as the Rambam.

“I committed iniquity before You by doing the following. Behold, I regret and am embarrassed for my deeds. I promise never to repeat this act again” (Hilchot Teshuva 1:1).

Everything else is commentary.