Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are referred to as ‘the high holy days.’ Rosh Hashanah is, of course, the Jewish New year: literally ‘head of the year.’
But it means more. It is the anniversary of the creation of the world.
The Jewish legend says that God created the world 5773 years ago, as a symbolic way of helping each person to think about his or her own life, reminded that there was a beginning and there will be an end, but right now we are in between those two momentous events.
We are here. Now. In this place. In this time. We are here to take stock of our lives, to reflect on all there is for which we are grateful, and to acknowledge that there is a great deal that we have endured to get to this place, time in our lives, this day.
That acknowledgement, that gratitude, that thoughtfulness, is what makes a day ‘high and holy.’
So, Rosh Hashanah, the new year, is the start of the ten days our Jewish friends call ‘the days of awe.’
Do you feel some sense of awe in this day? In this place? In this life?
To feel that sense of awe is what makes a day holy.
Jan Braunle told me about an experience that filled her with a sense of awe.
She was sitting in her yard and noticed some peculiar movement in a branch a few feet from where she was sitting. To her wonderment she notice a tiny humming bird moving in the branch; then she saw a larger humming bird, the mother, who kept coming back and forth, showing her fledgling how to fly.
The mother was patient…so was Jan. (who fetched a pair of binoculars to get a close-up look at this wonderful moment.)
After quite a bit of coaxing the little one took off, leaving the safety of the branch, following her mother’s lead, and away she flew, moving in an unsteady-but-determined pattern, fluttering and falling, up and down, but flying, maybe for the very first time.
Jan was so appreciative of the opportunity to be an eye witness to this great occasion.
What makes a day holy? What makes a life sacred?
It’s all about paying attention; it’s about being ready to notice what’s going on in the world around you, and being ready to notice what’s going on within you, getting in touch with all the things for which you feel thankful, all the things that give you a sense of wonder, a sense of awe.
Yom Kippur is ‘the day of atonement.’ It’s about repentance…it’s about forgiveness…it’s about cleaning house…to sweep away the crumbs…the debris that has accumulated in the corners of the past year.
For practicing Jews this is a time to do some internal work – to ask yourself how things went for you this past year – how you did. Yes, it’s about judgment, but it’s not about being ‘judged’ by others, it’s about thoughtfulness…it’s about reflection.
Yes, mistakes were made. Things were said that would have been better left unsaid. There were things that were left unsaid that should have been said; errors were made – errors of of commission and errors of omission.
Jewish tradition distinguishes between what are called ‘sins against God and sins against your brother or sister.’
In order to be forgiven for sins against God you must first make every attempt to find forgiveness from your brother or sister whom you have offended. If you’re carrying resentment, or guilt, or anger, you can’t touch the holiness or the sacredness of this day…you can’t find the peace of mind you want.
Yom Kippur is, first and foremost, about forgiveness, and forgiveness is the key to spiritual liberation, otherwise known as peace of mind.
What makes a day holy is that there’s something in it that moves you an inch closer to that holy place…peace of mind or serenity.
You remember Niebuhr’s prayer: “Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can change, and the wisdom to know the difference.”
It’s used in 12-step programs to deal with alcohol and other addictions. Those twelve steps are quite similar to the high holy days and include
Made a searching and fearless moral inventory…admitted the exact nature of (these) wrongs… Made a list of persons I’ve harmed, willing to make amends to them…made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.”
That’s precisely what the Jewish High Holy Days are about; cleaning the slate by making amends and making a fresh start, ready to try again to be more like the person you want to be…the person you need to become.
In some ways it’s about the golden thread running through all religious traditions – all the variations on the Golden Rule: do unto others as you would have them do unto you; or the Eastern variation, do not do unto others what you would not have done unto you.
Christianity is rooted in Judaism, of course, and is summarized in the so-called Sermon on the Mount, given by a famous Rabbi, Jesus. (Who, we’re told, may have been married, and if he had been married, he may have been divorced, which would account for the lack of his wife being mentioned in his parables.)
In that famous sermon he said (Matthew 5) “Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to them; then come and offer your gift.”
The point is that the essence of the Jewish High Holy Days touches something at the core of our own existence, the essence of our own life, which we might choose to call our spirituality.
The essence of spirituality is not about theological beliefs, or creeds or rituals – each of which may have its place in one’s life; but the essence of spirituality is about forgiveness. It’s about cleaning the slate and starting again.
“The story is told of Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berdichev, who once asked an illiterate tailor what he did on Yom Kippur, since he could not read the prescribed prayers. The tailor reluctantly and somewhat embarrassed, replied: “Well, I spoke to God and told Him that the sins for which I am expected to repent are really minor ones. I said to God: Lord of the Universe! My sins are small and of little consequence. I may have occasionally kept for myself some leftover cloth, or perhaps forgotten to recite some prayer now and then. But You, Lord, You have committed really grave sins. You have removed mothers from their children and children from their mothers. So let’s reach an agreement. If You’ll forgive me, then I’ll forgive You.”
Forgiveness is the key that unlocks the door to that place we call ‘peace of mind.’
In the middle of a discussion that included the question of forgiveness, I remember a colleague saying, “Only God forgives.”
It struck a nerve with me – it hit home. (The word sin comes from archery – ‘to miss the mark.’) There seemed to be something important in that assertion – that ‘only God forgives.’
We had been talking about capital punishment and we were responding to a news story about a mother who made her decision to forgive the man who had killed her daughter public, suggesting, by so doing, that a victim should forgive the perpetrator of horrible crimes.
I had been thinking that there was something wrong with this public display of so-called forgiveness, and I couldn’t quite put my finger on it…I couldn’t quite grasp what it was about this that bothered me.
Someone in the group said something in praise of her forgiveness and that it helped her to find ‘closure’ on her daughter’s death.
Something about that bothered me…as if one could or should be expected to find ‘closure’ on a daughter’s death, or any other such act of terrible destructiveness – there are some things in life for which there is no such thing as closure.
Oh, there may be silence. That kind of silence should not be mistaken for closure. It’s just a matter of keeping the grief private, holding it in a kind of inner sanctum, a holy place…the most sacred place in the Temple where no one can enter except the High Priest, and then only on the holiest day of the year.
The temple is a state of mind – a private place.
Rosh Hashanah, as I understand it, is a reminder that the world was created for me…for you. It a reminder that ‘this is not dress rehearsal;’ this life is not preparation for a life to come after this earthly existence. The purpose of life is to live it, to accept the struggle it requires, the hardship it delivers, the challenges that have to be faced…and to find the joy in it, the contentment, the potential for the peace of mind we need to find the sacredness in it.
Yom Kippur is about forgiveness.
Sometimes forgiveness requires an apology. But what does an apology – to be genuine and effective – require?
It’s not complicated, but it is a bit tricky.
For an apology to be effective, it requires that the one offering the apology acknowledge that an offense has occurred, which also requires an explanation of how the offended party sees it and the consequence to that party.
“I’m sorry you feel that way,” is not only lacking in the essential ingredient of an apology, it, in it’s own way, is offensive, adding insult to injury, as they say.
It suggests, “You should not feel that way.”
It suggests, “There’s something wrong with you…for feeling that way.”
It suggests, “I feel sorry for you.”
It suggests, “Were I in your shoes I would not feel offended since I’m quite above that…”
As an apology, it fails the most basic test.
An effective apology implies a request for forgiveness, so the one apologizing must acknowledge the he feels the need to be forgiven and the wish to have the offended party offer that forgiveness.
An effective apology says, “I said something (name it) that was offensive, and I know you were offended. I wish I had not done that, and it’s my intention not to do it again. I hope you find it within your heart to offer forgiveness, but I understand that you may not be ready to do that now, and you may never be ready to do that…I’m sorry, not only for what I said (or did) but I’m sorry for your having to carry the results of what I did…or said.”
Now, do I think this kind of apology is the only way to bring forgiveness?
No, I don’t. Indeed, my personal experience is that most of the time we don’t talk about the small offenses, and if we do, we don’t talk that way…which sounds like a rehearsed script.
But it’s important, I think, to understand what a true apology is about…the elements required.
All of the above is a way of suggesting that the High Holy Days of Jewish tradition have universal meaning because they touch something that’s at the heart of each of our lives; something about the need to acknowledge the gift of life itself…and the imperfection of every individual…and the wish to remove those imperfections, to have another chance to fix what was broken and to begin again…and again.
The finite is imperfect. You are imperfect. I am imperfect. We live with our imperfections and, hopefully, we grow from them…we are challenged by them.
The infinite is perfect. “No doubt the universe is unfolding as it should.” You remember that line from the Desiderata.
“Go placidly amidst the noise and haste, and remember what peace there may be in silence. As far as possible without surrender be on good terms with all persons. Speak your truth quietly and clearly; and listen to others, even the dull and the ignorant; they too have their story.
Avoid loud and aggressive persons, they are vexatious to the spirit. If you compare yourself with others, you may become vain or bitter; for always there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself.
Enjoy your achievements as well as your plans. Keep interested in your own career, however humble; it is a real possession in the changing fortunes of time.
Exercise caution in your business affairs; for the world is full of trickery. But let this not blind you to what virtue there is; many persons strive for high ideals; and everywhere life is full of heroism.
Be yourself. Especially, do not feign affection. Neither be cynical about love; for in the face of all aridity and disenchantment it is as perennial as the grass.
Take kindly the counsel of the years, gracefully surrendering the things of youth. Nurture strength of spirit to shield you in sudden misfortune. But do not distress yourself with dark imaginings. Many fears are born of fatigue and loneliness.
Beyond a wholesome discipline, be gentle with yourself. You are a child of the universe, no less than the trees and the stars; you have a right to be here.
And whether or not it is clear to you, no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should. Therefore be at peace with God, whatever you conceive Him to be, and whatever your labors and aspirations, in the noisy confusion of life keep peace with your soul. With all its shams, drudgery, and broken dreams, it is still a beautiful world. Be cheerful.
Strive to be happy.