Teshuvah 101

For the last month, Jews have been preparing for the High Holy Days. During Elul and the High Holy Days, we work to make teshuvah, to return to the right path.

Teshuvah literally means “turning.” When we “make teshuvah” we notice what we’ve done wrong, we acknowledge that it is wrong, we take responsibility for it, we do what we can to apologize and make amends, and then we make a plan for not doing it again.

1. READ a Beginner’s Guide to the High Holy Days. It’s an entry on this blog, just follow the link.  This will give you an idea of the season as a whole.

2. 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 you aimed at something and you missed.  In Judaism, the focus is not on what a terrible person you are for doing something, the focus is to aim more carefully when you next are in that situation

Very Important:  The point of the season is not to beat myelf up, it’s to make myself better.  Taking responsibility and expressing sorrow are important but the act of teshuvah [repentance] is not complete until I do better.  Remember, in Judaism the focus is on doing, not so much on one’s state of mind.

3. PEOPLE are the prime concern during the process of teshuvah. I need to go through my address book and think, is there anyone I have treated badly? Have I apologized? The only time an apology is not required is if it would cause greater pain. Is it possible to make restitution, if that is appropriate?  The tradition is very clear that it is essential we apologize to those we have offended or injured and do our best to make things right.  If they will not accept an apology, or if something cannot be made right, then we have to do the best we can.

4. It is possible to sin against MYSELF, as well. Have I treated my body carelessly, either by neglect or by abusing it? Do I follow my doctor’s orders? For any of these things, I need to take responsibility, and to think about change.

5. Sins against GOD also require teshuvah. As a Reform Jew, I may or may not keep the commandments in a traditional way. Whatever my practice, it needs to be genuine: I should not claim to be more observant than I am. Which mitzvot do I observe? Are there mitzvot I think I should observe, but don’t? Why don’t I? What could I change so that I will be the Jew I want to be?

6. ADJUSTMENTS  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.  A fresh pair of eyes and ears may see options that I don’t.

7. DON’T GO TO PIECES As I said above, the point of all this is not to beat yourself up, it’s to make the world better by making your behavior better. Do not wallow in guilt, just note what needs to change and make a plan for change. If the list is overwhelming, pick one or two things and then take action. 

8. PRAYER. During Elul the shofar is sounded at morning services in the synagogue on weekdays. Some people find that the ancient sound of the ram’s horn “wakes them up.” That may sound silly, but try it and see.  Towards the end of Elul, on a Saturday night, there is a beautiful service called Selichot (Slee-CHOT) in which we gather as a community to read through prayers and lists that will help us identify the things we need to improve. If you can, attend; it can be a big help.

These eight elements can help you have a fruitful High Holy Days. Each year 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.

L’shana tovah:  May the coming year be a good year for you!

The Art of the Good Apology

The Day of Atonement atones for sins against God, not for sins against man, unless the injured party has been appeased.”– Mishnah Yoma 8:9

If we are normal people leading normal lives, there will be times we owe someone an apology. Our offenses may be big, or small, and in some cases we may even feel they have been blown out of proportion, but something must be done about them.

A fascination with Intentions can distract from this process.  Nothing messes up a good apology like “I intended X but you clearly misunderstood, you idiot.”

Imagine for a moment that you are standing in line somewhere. It’s crowded, and you step sideways or backwards because you are trying to keep your balance. Your foot, and all of your weight, lands firmly on the instep of another person. He yelps.

Now: what do you say?  Most people would agree that the thing to say in this situation is “I’m sorry,” “Pardon!” or better yet, “I’m so sorry I stepped on your foot.”  It should sound like the stepper actually regrets stepping on the foot.  Then the other person might, if he is gracious, say, “That’s OK” or “That’s OK, but be careful!” or, if there was a crunch and severe pain, or a stiletto involved, “I think it may be broken, can you help me get to a doctor?”

What would NOT be OK is for the first person to say, “Your foot is in the wrong place!” or “Quit complaining, you big baby!” After all, she just stepped on someone’s foot!  And it would be ridiculous to say, “Well, I didn’t intend to step on it, so it doesn’t count. Get over yourself!”

The same applies when we step on people’s feelings. The first, indispensable thing to say is “I’m sorry,” in a tone that conveys genuine sorrow. It’s good to say it as soon as possible, but it’s never too late to say it. It doesn’t matter what you intended; what has to be attended to is the hurt.  That’s why it’s good to name the hurt: “I’m sorry I didn’t think before I spoke/ ran over your dog / etc.”  No subjunctive mood nonsense, either:  none of this “If your feelings were hurt, I’m sorry” stuff. That makes you sound like a shifty politician, and it just compounds the injury.

Next step: What are you going to do, so that this doesn’t happen again? This needs to be something specific. “I am going to make an appointment with my eye doctor!” or “I am going to talk to a counselor about why I am always late!” or “I am going to do some study about racism, because I have a lot to learn!”

If at any point they want to tell you how they are feeling, LISTEN. Don’t interrupt, don’t tell them how they should feel, don’t tell them you already apologized. Don’t justify, don’t argue. LISTEN. Then repeat back to them what you heard: “I get that you are very angry, and I am so sorry I left you wondering if I was safe.”

I live in California, and people are lawsuit-crazy here. They love to sue each other, and it’s tempting to live in fear of lawsuits, never taking responsibility for anything, lest someone take that to court and make money out of it. But folks, that is no way to live, and it is no way to run relationships with our neighbors or friends.

Here is Rabbi Adar’s recipe for a good apology:

1. “I am sorry that I _____ .”  Say it in a sincere tone of voice, so they can hear that you are sorry.

2. “Here’s what I will do to make sure this never happens again.” (alternatively, “Here is what I will do to make restitution.”)

3. If they have something to say, listen. Do not defend or argue.

That’s it.  That’s all that is required. It’s hard, but if you are going to the trouble of making amends and apologies, they might as well be good ones, right?

Think back over the apologies you have received in your life. When has an apology actually helped? What about that apology worked?

Elul Sweat

I associate the last few days of Elul with sweat.

Sure it’s hot. Pretty much anywhere north of the equator, this is going to be one of the warmer months of the year. Even in the Bay Area, where it’s “always” moderate, we are usually fussing about about the heat towards the end of Elul.

My Elul sweat has more to do with the things left for me to do: the phone calls I have not yet made and the apologies I am yet to give. As long as I’m still dreading them, my teshuvah is incomplete.

The best apology is made out of concern for the other person. When I sweat, I know that the focus of my teshuvah is still on myself: my embarrassment at imperfection, my need to appear flawless, my fear of blame. Excuses keep flashing to mind: I was busy, I was upset, I was depressed, I was anxious, I was distracted, my feelings were hurt… those are all about me. They are not teshuvah.

The best apology is made of concern for the other person. The only way I know to that place is to imagine myself in their shoes, to cultivate compassion. How would I feel on the other side of my behavior?

Then I sweat some more because that isn’t fun, either. I must grab that energy and take it where it will do some good. I must seize it and make teshuvah.

I wish you a fruitful Elul.

Food Traditions for Rosh HaShanah

Many Jewish holidays have special food traditions associated with them, and Rosh HaShanah is no exception.

The main theme for Jewish New Year foods is “Sweet,” in hopes of a sweet year to come. That will take many forms, depending on context: in an Ashkenazi family, it will mean a carrot tzimmes with dinner, or roasted apple brisket. In a Sephardic home, it will mean roast chicken with fruit and honey cakes made with ground nuts instead of flour.

Apples and honey are also a major item at Rosh HaShanah. Some say that has to do with the associations with Creation, and the infamous fruit eaten by Adam and Eve. However, apples didn’t grow in the ancient Near East; it’s more likely that the Biblical writer was thinking of a fig tree, so perhaps fig recipes are in order as well!

There is also the tradition of round challah for the holidays. You can add raisins or apple bits to the dough, but braid it into a round loaf instead of the usual oblong. For directions on how to braid a round challah, this YouTube video may help:

Askenazi menus & recipes

Menus for Rosh HaShanah from Kosherfood

Menus for Rosh HaShanah from Epicurious.com

Sephardic menus & recipes

Turkish Rosh HaShanah Delights

Menu from the Global Jewish Kitchen

American Twists on Rosh HaShanah Favorites

For interfaith families and converts to Judaism, Rosh HaShanah’s theme of sweetness offers a chance to import favorite treats from regional holiday menus. For instance, I grew up eating Chess Pie on December 25, but now that Southern favorite has become a Rosh HaShanah tradition for me. It’s super-sweet and rich, perfect for a Jewish New Year dessert.

One last thought – and link! – about Rosh HaShanah cooking: Kenden Alfond has written a wonderful piece for Kveller.com about the Jewish “tradition” of over-cooking for the holidays. The joy of the season is not enhanced by straining one’s credit or guilt-tripping others over food. It’s much better to fill everyone up with good feelings than to push a third serving of kugel at someone who doesn’t want it. (By the same token, can we all agree not to torture our relatives with diet talk and health trolling for just a couple of days?)

I wish all my readers fun planning your holiday menus, and joy around your holiday table!

Beginner’s Guide to the High Holy Days, 5776

Rosh HaShanah, the Jewish New Year, begins at sundown on September 13, 2015. 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.

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 inadvertently, 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.”]

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 other human beings if we have gone 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.

In the Synagogue

Very important, for newcomers: Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur are the days of the year when the greatest number of Jews attend synagogue. However, they are not good days to attend synagogue for the first time. The services are longer than usual and much more solemn. For a first visit to a synagogue, a regular Shabbat service on Friday night or Saturday is much more typical of Jewish practice and belief.

Tickets for Prayer?

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 visitors (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.

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.

L’Shanah Tovah: I wish you a fruitful beginning to the New Year of 5776!

Seven Shofar Facts

  1. The only clear mention of Rosh HaShanah in the Torah – and then not by name! – is the Zichron Truah [Memorial Horn-Sounding] of Leviticus 23:24 and the Yom Teruah [Day of Horn-Sounding] of Numbers 29:1. The sound of the shofar and our obligation to hear it is right at the heart of Rosh HaShanah, the mitzvah [commandment] for the day.
  2. The shofar itself is a very plain object: the horn of a kosher animal, hollowed out so that it can work like a bugle. The halakhah [Jewish law] is clear on this: it has to be animal horn and it cannot be fitted with a metal mouthpiece or other fancy fittings.
  3. The person who blows the shofar is called the ba’al or ba’alat tekiah [master or mistress of the blast.] It is an honor to sound the shofar for the congregation.
  4. Sometimes you may see a shofar that has been plated with gold or silver, but those shofarot are decorative objects. The kosher shofar is a simple animal horn.  Under no circumstances should it have a metal mouthpiece.
  5. According to tradition, the shofar should be a ram’s horn, or that of a greater kudu (used by Yemenite Jews) both of which are curved. Occasionally you may see the horn of an ibex or a gemsbok (oryx), but they are relatively rare and quite expensive.
  6. The curved horn is required because the text for Rosh HaShanah is the story of the Binding of Isaac from Genesis 22. Near the end of the story, Abraham lifts his eyes and seems a ram caught in the bushes by his curved horns, a substitute for the human sacrifice.  When we see the curved shofar, we are reminded of the story and the mercy of God.
  7. Someone asked recently how a Deaf person can fulfill the mitzvah of hearing the shofar. At Temple Beth Solomon of the Deaf in Southern California, they have come up with an ingenious way to allow even those with no hearing at all hear the shofar. Before the service, congregants inflate plenty of balloons. Then, when it comes time for the sound of the shofar, all who need help hearing the sound hold a balloon in their hands. The vibrations of the shofar cause the balloons to vibrate (just as it makes the eardrums of a hearing person vibrate) and so the Deaf congregants can hear it with their hands.

Thank you to Rabbi Michal Loving of Temple Beth Orr, Coral Springs, FL for the photo featured with this article. I use it by permission of Rabbi Loving, and all rights to its use are hers. The shofar pictured is in the Yemenite style, made from a kudu horn.

A Guide to High Holy Day Greetings

There are a number of ways Jews greet one another during the High Holy Days.  The easiest, all-purpose greeting is:

SHANA TOVA – (shah-NAH toe-VAH) – literally “Good year” it means “Happy New Year.” You can reply with the same words.

Some other greetings you may hear leading up to Rosh Hashanah and on the day:

L’SHANA TOVA (luh-shah-NAH toe-VAH) – literally “To a Good Year.” It also means Happy New Year, and you can reply in kind.

L’SHANA TOVA TIKATEIVU (shah-NAH toe-VAH tee-kah-TAY-voo) literally, “May you be written for a good year [in the Book of Life.]

GUT YUNTIFF – (GOOT YUN-tif), (Yiddish) “Happy Holiday.”

From Rosh HaShanah to Yom Kippur, it’s polite to assume that someone has already been “written in the book of life” so you wish them a “good sealing”:

GAMAR CHATIMAH TOVAH – (ga-MAR chah-ti-MAH toe-VAH) – “May your final sealing be good.”

Remember, you can never go wrong greeting or answering with “Shana Tovah!”

Thank you to Rabbi Michal Loving of Temple Beth Orr, Coral Springs, FL for the photo featured with this article. I use it by permission of Rabbi Loving, and all rights to its use are hers.