A Final Mitzvah, as the High Holidays Close

Image: Sunset. Photo by Ruth Adar.

The fall holiday cycle is almost done. We have Shmini Atzeret and Simchat Torah to go, and then Jewish life will settle down for a bit.

FYI: Your clergy are almost certainly exhausted from the past couple of months. This is a great time to write them a note about the sermon you liked, or the beautiful music, or something that went right. They have worked very hard and any expression of appreciation will be a blessing. Email is fine, but I know a couple of rabbis who save written thank-yous in a box, specifically to help them keep going when things are tough.

The big thing is, if you’re happy about something to do with synagogue life, this is a great time to let your clergy know. They wonder, sometimes, who notices things, and who cares. They hear about what went wrong but they rarely hear “thank you.”

I am not a pulpit rabbi – I’m a Jew in the Pew. I will be writing my rabbis with my own thanks.

I just thought some of y’all might want to know when letters of appreciation are particularly welcome. The expression of gratitude is truly a mitzvah.

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Teaching the High Holy Days

Today I taught an online class on the Fall Holiday Cycle, aka the High Holy Days. I did a demonstration of shofar blowing and gathered a crowd here in the house. The dogs are fascinated by the shofar but a bit shy of its sound.

If you have ritual objects in your home, keep in mind that shofarot smell like fabulous chew toys, as do scrolls and the klaf in your mezuzah. Keep the shofar, etc. out of reach of pets.

Photo by Linda Burnett, all rights reserved.

Moving the Furniture

Image: My computer, unplugged and out of the way.

We have to rearrange the house to get some repairs done. Sukkot is coming, which means at least one gathering, and some other events as well. We are cleaning and repairing things in expectation of guests, holidays, and (soon) a new grandchild.

Funny, if you move the furniture around, you find stuff. We discovered when we moved the couch that there was a line of shmutz (Yiddish for dirt) just under it. I’ll have to clean that up before we replace the couch.

Yom Kippur is a lot like that. Our tradition gives us a season to drag around the furniture of our lives, checking for shmutz, fixing what’s broken. That season culminates in a serious 24 hour period for reflection, stripped of our usual distractions of food, or drink, or sex. If we use it well, we will be renewed. If we waste it by clinging to distractions, we are the losers.

Many of us are worried about the state of the world and the country right now. That, too, can be a distraction from dealing with the things that are truly ours to control: our behavior, our attitudes, and our choices.

I wish you a thoughtful, prayerful time as you traverse the Days of Awe 5780.

A Rosh Hashanah Letter to my Christian Friends

Image: Apples, Honey, and Pomegranates are among the traditional foods for Rosh Hashanah. (Lakovleva Daria / Shutterstock/ all rights reserved)

Dear Friends,

You’ve likely noticed words like “Rosh Hashanah” and “Yom Kippur” are coming up in the calendar. You may or may not know that those are Jewish holidays. You also may have noticed Jewish friends or co-workers maneuvering to take time off for those days. Here are some things to know if you want to be a good friend and a supportive ally:

Rosh Hashanah is the Jewish New Year, but it isn’t like secular New Year’s Eve. We spend part of it in synagogue and often the rest of it at a holiday gathering with relatives. For many of us, synagogue is not optional on that day, nor is the time with family: we really have to be there. It is both a joyful and a solemn day.

Yes, this applies even to the Jews you don’t think of as “religious” Jews. Rather than make a joke about how you wish you had holidays that “gave” you time off (which you do, it’s called Christmas) why not give a friend a break and help them take the time?

“Happy Rosh Hashanah” is OK but please don’t wish me a “Happy Yom Kippur.” Yom Kippur means “Day of Atonement,” and we spend it fasting and praying for 24 hours. For many of us, that fast includes water. It’s not a fun day, nor is it intended to be, and we may not feel great the next day, either.

If you are curious about the High Holy Days, here are some articles that may help you understand what we’re up to:

18 Facts about Rosh Hashanah

What’s Yom Kippur? 12 Facts

The Jewish Calendar: Why 5779?

May the year 5780 be a good year and a year of peace for all the world!

What is a Kittel?

Image: A kittle, folded up like a shirt.

A kittel is a garment you might see during the High Holy Days or at a wedding. It is a white garment made of lightweight fabric, usually cotton or a polyester blend. It looks a bit like a very light lab coat with a cloth belt, generally in a mid-calf length, and it is worn buttoned-up.

You may also see a kittel on the chatan [bridegroom] at a wedding.

In both cases, the kittel signifies the purity of heart one tries to bring to those situations. The color white is sometimes said to take its inspiration from this verse from the prophets:

Come now, and let us reason together, says the Eternal; though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be white as snow; though they be red like crimson, they shall be like wool.

— Isaiah 1:18

A kittel may also be worn by the meyt [body of the deceased] in the coffin for burial. Usually it is paired with long trousers of the same material. The persons who wash the body for burial dress it before putting it in the casket. You are unlikely to see a meyt in a kittel because it is not the custom to view a body after death; Jewish funerals are always closed-casket.

This gives us another reason that some people choose to wear a kittel during High Holy Day observances. There is a focus on the end of life during those days, especially Yom Kippur. Wearing the garment in which one might be buried is a sharp reminder of our mortality.

Teshuvah, With a Little Help

Image: Woman holds her head as she talks with another. (Serena Wong / Pixabay)

We talk a lot about making teshuvah in the weeks leading up to Rosh Hashanah. An observant Jew will take stock of their life (cheshbon nefesh) and see what needs to change. They will look at their relationships, and see what needs mending and to whom they owe an apology. They may also hear apologies from others, and have to respond to those.

Maimonides teaches a standard for making teshuvah, that it is only complete when we are in the same situation and act rightly. The gossip, for instance, needs to walk away the next time people begin telling juicy stories (and the successive times after that, as well.)

In order to act rightly in a tempting situation, we need a plan. Without a plan, we are apt to fall into old ways of behavior, because that is easiest. The plan needs to be specific: “when X happens, I will do Y.”

This is a point at which a counselor, rabbi, or even a good friend can be helpful. We don’t always see our options (which is often how we got in trouble in the first place.) We may see one or two things we can do, but without suggestions from outside, we may not see the option that will allow us to make genuine change.

It can be embarrassing to say to someone, “I yell at my children too much,” or “I need help thinking of ways to stop gossiping” or “I haven’t been to the dentist in 10 years because I am afraid.” But if our inner response to something is “I just can’t help it” then it is high time to get help from outside.

If you are preparing for the New Year by searching your heart for the things that need to change, know that you don’t need to do this task alone – in fact, you may do a better job of it with a little help from a friend.

A classic on the subject!


The 2019 High Holy Days arrive on Sept 29 at Sundown – What’s Your Plan?

Image: A shofar, the ram’s horn blown on Rosh HaShanah. (Wikimedia)

Rosh Hashanah this year (2019) begins at sundown on September 29. That may sound like a long way off, but it’s closer than you think.

What are your plans for the High Holy Days (HHDs) this year? Are you planning on going to synagogue for services? Planning to make it a quiet time for reflection? Planning to ignore them entirely?

If the third possibility is your plan, I invite you to reconsider. The High Holy Days can be fulfilling and renewing, but only if you decide what you want out of them and then invest yourself in them.

If you are planning on going to services: If you are a member of a synagogue, that one is simple – go to shul. If you aren’t a member, then it’s trickier, and you definitely need to start thinking now. In most metropolitan areas, there are two options: free services and services requiring tickets. Call around, find out what’s available. More and more Jewish groups are offering free HHDs services, but not all congregations can afford to do so. If tickets make you angry, don’t go to those places.

Another option: streaming services!: Many synagogues now stream their services, including High Holy Day services. This too may involve some sleuthing: check out the websites of synagogues in your time zone, or maybe that of your childhood synagogue. (Pro tip: If you like the experience and want them to continue doing it, consider sending them a donation with a letter thanking them for the streamed service.)

If you are planning on a do-it-yourself HHDs experience: Decide what you want to accomplish. Then look for the resources you need. There are some wonderful books about the HHDs. I have a list of them in the post titled Books to Help Us Prepare for the High Holy Days. Some are books designed for preparation, and some are machzorim (HHDs prayer books.) Sometimes a quiet place to sit and something good to read is exactly what we need.

If you are not sure what you want, learn about the High Holy Days themselves. You can start with the article High Holy Days for Beginners, 5780/2019 edition. They can be a hugely fulfilling process of taking stock and putting one’s house in order. They can be an opportunity to connect with other Jews who are seeking community and wholeness/holiness. If past experiences of the HHDs were more about new clothes or stuffy synagogues, the one who can change that is you. Learn, then put your learning to use in making the experience you want.

Whatever you do, remember that the High Holy Days are coming. Anticipation is part of the process!

I wish you a good year, a year of sweetness and fulfillment, in the coming year of 5780!