Happy and healthy New Year to you and your family.
Let me start by sharing that I am not a very spiritual nor religious person. But with Rosh Hashanah, which ended earlier this week, I find this a serious time for personal introspection. The holiday marks the beginning of a 10-day period of repentance and reflection that ends with Yom Kippur beginning next Tuesday evening. The intervening time between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur is called the Yamim Noraim, translated as the Days of Awe.
I was taught that Rosh Hashanah is essentially the opening for making things right with God. On Rosh Hashanah, according to Jewish belief, God writes down all of the events that will occur during the coming year, including births, deaths, and good and bad fortune. Until God “closes the book” at the conclusion of Yom Kippur, we all have the opportunity to change our coming fate for the better by righting any wrongs we have done and extending charity to the community at large.
Our tradition teaches multiple ways in which we can prepare ourselves for the holiday. One is to shed our sins through the tradition of tashlikh, which means “casting off.” Oftentimes, bread is emptied out into running water, symbolically carrying away all the bad actions of the previous year.
There is also a centuries-old ritual called kaparot. This is done by taking a chicken (a very controversial practice in modern times and practiced by a very small minority of Jews), or money (this is far more common and a way Jews can participate in the custom without bringing harm to an animal), and waving it around your head three times. The folk belief is that an individual's sins will be transferred to the chicken (or money), thereby allowing them to begin the New Year with a clean slate. The chicken is then slaughtered and given to charity (as is the money if used in place of the chicken).
I will never forget that a few months before my father passed away, he shared family folklore about the kaparot ritual. Apparently, my great-great grandmother was performing the ritual (with a chicken), and while swinging the chicken over her head she had a heart attack and died. After some research, it turns out she did in fact die three days before Yom Kippur in 1902.
Perhaps more fun and a safer/easier way to cast off your sins is the opportunity to share in the eScapegoat produced by G-dcast. Check out this short video.
I remember my Hebrew school teacher telling us that if we cannot find the time to repent and make things right in the 10 days preceding Yom Kippur, perhaps we do not really want or deserve it in the first place. If we really think about it, there is something very comforting and intuitive about a tradition that offers a very plain choice -- do right, reconcile with friends and enemies, and be rewarded -- or don’t. Good behavior is truly its own reward.
In Pirkei Avot (Ethics of Our Fathers), Rabbi Ben Zoma said, “Who is wise? One who learns from all people. Who is honored? One who honors everyone.” In the coming year I hope to learn from and honor every person in our community.
While repentance is the primary act to be performed during the Ten Days of Awe, charity and prayer are no less important. Tzedakah, charity, or acts of righteousness, requires that we look outside ourselves and see the needs of others. What can we do to help those who need us, financially or otherwise? It is important to point out that the emphasis placed on tzedakah during this crucial time in the Jewish year merely serves to impress upon us the need to make charity a part of our lives overall. Tefillah,prayer, the other action that can help in our quest is a further mode of introspection and change of character.
I know that for many synagogues this is an important time for their fundraising appeals. We at the Jewish Federation encourage every synagogue member to support their synagogue during this time. Strong synagogues help to build a stronger Jewish community. And, we encourage our Jewish community to help financially support Jewish and non-Jewish organizations in the coming year and to continue our collective efforts of repairing the world.
Israeli leader Shimon Peres famously asked, “Do you know the secret of Jewish success? -- Dissatisfaction!”
This, in many ways, is what I believe this period of reflection is all about. Are we fully satisfied in who we are? Are we kind to others? Spending enough time with our families? Proud of our professional accomplishments? This is the perfect time for each of us to reflect and think about how we can be better people. None of us are perfect – we all make mistakes. At times we can be not so nice. This moment provides us the opportunity to “build up” our relationships with others and to start anew. We can envision our individual role in making society better -- for ourselves and others.
May you have a tzom kal, an easy (and meaningful) fast and G’mar Chatimah Tovah, may you be sealed for a good year.