Posts Tagged ‘Rosh Hashanah’

WHALES, DOLPHINS AND AWE

I read Moby Dick ages ago and found myself fascinated by Herman Melville’s lengthy discourses on cetology, the study of whales. Last Wednesday, I joined my friends Ira and Dan on a whale watching trip hosted by the Oceanographic Society. In a word: awesome!

We departed on the Salty Ladyfrom the yacht harbor at the Marina Green off Scott Street. The two naturalists onboard and the captain all emphasized the incredible weather we’d have at sea: clear skies and mild—a relative matter—temperatures. (San Francisco hit 94 degrees that afternoon.)

On the way out, we spotted dolphins, porpoises, humpback whales and sea birds, including more than one albatross, and a rarely sighted skua. Because of the great weather, our captain decided to bypass the Farallon Islands at first and sail to the edge of the continental shelf. There, the seabed drops precipitously from 300 feet to 3,000. An upwelling of water brings nutrients and food sources providing great feeding to whales and other sea life.

Jaws dropped as humpbacks spouted then rose out of the water. We’d see their backs then a huge length of white foam as they submerged. Several jumped out vertically well past their heads. Others displayed their flukes—tails—as they dove.

At the peak of activity, we sighted a pod of at least three whales and maybe five. Spouts rose like the fountains at Las Vegas’ Bellagio Hotel. Dolphins and porpoises leapt by the boat with great frequency. A huge turtle came close—another rare sighting. An ocean sunfish swam alongside. I called out to the sea life, “Guys, slow down. There’s more to see here than we can take in!” They didn’t listen. No complaint from me.

Almost everyone missed the best sighting. After stopping by the Farallons to check out the birds and sea lions—we also saw houses for researchers and Coast Guard personnel—we headed back to San Francisco.

As we sat and chatted, Ira, who’d been seasick until noon and missed the action out at the continental shelf’s edge, spotted a humpback leap entirely out of the water and expose its white belly. By the time he called out, Dan and I could see only the splash. Only one or two others onboard saw the event. We were glad for Ira and had no problem missing what we’d love to have seen because we’d seen so much.

Sunday night, the Jewish world will observe Rosh Hashanah, marking the New Year 5780. The whales, dolphins, porpoises and birds I saw provided me with much added meaning. The ten-day period from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, is known as the Days of Awe. As we contemplate how we’ve lived our lives and acknowledge the Source of Creation, the majesty of the synagogue service can raise our spirits only so far. We need perspective.

Being out on the Pacific, rising and falling with the swells, witnessing the sea’s sheer size and power, and seeing the magnificent creatures with whom we share the planet showed me how small I am and how huge is creation.

At this, or any, time of the year, a little awe-inspired humility can bring us closer to the marvels we can see and the mysteries we can’t.

The post will take next week off and return on October 11. For everyone celebrating Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, may you be written and sealed into the Book of Life.

Big Truth: New and Collected Stories,  is available at Amazon and bn.com in paper or e-book. Or, ask your favorite bookstore to order a copy. And, please leave a review on either or both sites.

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JONAH AND JONES

Harvard University recently rejected a Ph.D. candidate in history despite impressive credentials. Michelle Jones’ case should move us to examine the biblical book of Jonah.

Jones, 45 and a child victim of abuse, served more than 20 years for murdering her four-year-old son. A horrible crime? Absolutely. Yet in prison, she earned a B.A. from Ball State and led an award-winning research project for the Indiana Historical Society. Harvard’s history program accepted her, but the school’s administration overturned the decision fearing backlash from rejected applicants. At least some Harvard administrators hold the concept of repentance at arm’s length.

With Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, beginning next Friday evening, practicing Jews focus on repentance. During Rosh Hashanah (the New Year; it’s 5778) and the ten days following, we seek forgiveness—individually and communally—for sins committed against God. (For wrongs against people, only those hurt can grant forgiveness.) We pray for God’s mercy. But are we willing to forgive others who repent?

Note that Judaism doesn’t instruct victims to turn the other cheek and offer blanket forgiveness. That lets wrongdoers off the hook. Rather, a wrongdoer must ask for forgiveness. If after being asked three times the injured person refuses to forgive, the offender no longer remains obligated to make further petitions.

Understand, too, that it’s easy to say, “I’m sorry.” The philosopher Maimonides (1135-1204) instructs that repentance involves three phases—understanding the wrong committed, vowing not to repeat it then not doing it. Words must lead to action.

Granted, it can be difficult to forgive those who have wronged us. This conundrum marks the biblical book of Jonah, a traditional Yom Kippur reading. I’ll teach the text at Congregation Sherith Israel on Yom Kippur afternoon (1:15).

In brief, God tells Jonah to go to the wicked city of Nineveh and tell the people to repent. There’s an irony here. Nineveh is the capital of Assyria, which destroyed the northern kingdom of Israel and scattered its “ten lost tribes.” Despite God’s command, Jonah sails west in the opposite direction to escape performing this task. He doesn’t want God to give the Ninevites the opportunity to repent.

After three days in the stomach of a dag gadol (a big fish, not a whale), Jonah learns a lesson. God commands. You do. Jonah goes to Nineveh and announces that God is giving the city 40 days to repent or be overturned.

The Ninevites, from the king down, repent—and mean it! Jonah is unhappy. He wants Nineveh destroyed and always feared God would forgive. God, however, prefers that humans repent and live righteously. Terrible deeds cannot be undone, but people can refashion themselves.

Jonah and Yom Kippur assert that the human heart possesses considerable elasticity. Not all bad or evil people will turn towards righteousness. Like the Pharaoh who enslaved the Israelites, some have gone too far gone. But for most of us, the opportunity to repent endures.

But we cannot proclaim our worthiness to be forgiven while refusing to give others when they prove their merit. New York University got it. They accepted Jones. In doing so, NYU (my father’s alma mater) affirmed that Jonah, a small book, offers a big a lesson for the ages. Now go and study.

For more on Jonah, see my recap and commentary in God’s Others: Non-Israelites’ Encounters With God in the Hebrew Bible (Amazon). May you be written and sealed into the Book of Life, and enjoy a year of peace.

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CAPTAINS OF OUR SOULS

Sunday evening, Jews will observe Rosh Hashanah, the New Year (5777). Ten days later comes Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. Unlike during the rest of the year, the sanctuary at Sherith Israel, my synagogue, will be full. Interestingly, most in attendance won’t know the Hebrew (our prayer book offers transliterations into English), or the prayers and rituals. What’s more, they won’t come back for another year. So what’s the draw?

All religions mark sacred days and seasons, which continue through centuries, even millennia. Contrast our own lives: here today, gone tomorrow, remembered the next day, forgotten the day after. No wonder many seek consolation—even those in whose lives religion plays a negligible role.

The vast majority of Jews in San Francisco don’t join synagogues. Many have no interest in Judaism even if they remain affixed to various components of Jewish culture. Others drop out completely. Still others, particularly young people, explore Judaism but view synagogues as too institutional, symbols of permanence intruding on lives in flux, reminders of their settled, stolid parents. Some find alternative Jewish communities—vibrant and creative but generally requiring little or no commitment.

Even many synagogue members—outside of Orthodoxy—forego core Jewish practices. They work, party and shop on Shabbat (the Sabbath—sundown Friday to sundown Saturday). They view the dietary laws as holdovers from a primitive, superstitious past, digging into their bacon cheeseburgers. That’s their choice, and they’re entitled to it.

Nonetheless, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, along with Chanukah and Passover, exert a powerful gravitational pull. Why? The High Holidays help keep us real.

In the increasingly secular West, we see ourselves as rational beings, masters of our fate, captains of our soul. Yet despite our material possessions, we frequently find ourselves ill at ease, unsatisfied. We sense that something’s missing. Rational beings? We witness rampant self-destructive behavior, poverty, hatred and violence. Yet humanity can produce enough of everything people need to go around. If rational means being selfish, how rational do we want to be?

Masters of our fate? Few mature adults haven’t experienced life’s unforeseen and uncontrollable twists that altered or swept away their dreams. The older we get, the more we acknowledge that random stuff happens. What’s more, our own imperfections place stumbling blocks before us.

As to being captains of our soul, that we can achieve in great measure. It’s possible to live with our human frailty, do better by ourselves and others, and achieve a measure of inner peace. But it takes attention and work. That’s why many Jews who hold Judaism at arm’s length attend High Holiday services. They seek to connect with the eternal and unknowable. To find comfort in touching base with something that’s bigger and more enduring than themselves. And they do it, even if those goals are subconscious.

I’ll be at Sherith Israel Sunday night and Monday morning. (The Reform movement observes one day for Rosh Hashanah as do Jews in Israel; Orthodox and Conservative Jews outside Israel observe two.) I’ll recite the prayers, chant familiar and new melodies, and reflect as I do each Shabbat. All those “twice-a-year” Jews surrounding me? I’ll delight in their company.

Because every now and then it’s important to crack the facades we erect around our carefully crafted personas, peer inside and see who’s home.

If you enjoy these posts, suggest to family and friends that they check out davidperlstein.com. Post something on Facebook, too. If you’re marking the Jewish New Year, Shanah Tovah! May the new year bring you health and peace.

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ROSH HASHANAH, CHINA AND ISIS

Wednesday evening and Thursday morning, worshippers filled Congregation Sherith Israel’s awe-inspiring sanctuary for Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year (5775). This told me a lot about what’s going on in China and the Islamic State.

Let’s start with the synagogue. Most Friday-night Shabbat services draw 50–75 worshippers, Saturday mornings fewer. A guest cantor, musical group, speaker or bar- or bat-mitzvah may attract 100–200 people—a fraction of the Rosh Hashanah crowd. So if most congregants rarely attend Shabbat services, what draws them to the High Holy Days?

I suspect they are “touching base”—reminding themselves that they share a heritage with generations present, past and future. They may drift away during the year, but they return annually. They engage in a natural human tendency to seek meaning in life beyond the material.

China’s population mirrors that desire. Over the past 40 years, China has developed a large middle class. It’s not exactly America’s middle class, but hundreds of millions of Chinese live above the poverty level and enjoy disposable income. China’s upper crust flaunts fabulous wealth. But this doesn’t seem to be enough.

In the current issue of foreign affairs, John Osburg reviews Evan Osnos’ book, Age of Ambition. It seems that many middle-class Chinese remain dissatisfied. They want more from life. Osburg writes, “Perhaps the most significant response to the perceived moral and spiritual crisis has been a surprising flourishing of religion.” In China, that religion is in great part Christianity. Because religion offers alternative ways of thinking, it disturbs the Communist Party.

Which brings us to the Islamic State. A number of ISIS fighters come from the West—Europe, the U.S., Australia and so on. Many were born there. They have access to education and prospects. Yet they’re drawn to ISIS, which does not promise the lifestyle of the rich and famous.

Now, I don’t think that Islamists like those of ISIS, Al Qaeda and their offshoots are anything but twisted in their religiosity. Most have little or no Muslim schooling. Granted, some verses in the Quran offer a basis for hatred of others. Likewise, so do some verses in the Torah. However, 2,000 years ago the Rabbis reinterpreted or rejected troubling narratives and commandments. They moved forward. Islamists want to go 1,400 years backwards.

ISIS’ Western fighters and supporters seek higher values they feel they can’t find at home. Young, impressionable and testosterone-fueled, they succumb to a concept of universalistic religion—Islam isn’t just right for them, it’s mandatory for everyone. Moreover, only their version of Islam is acceptable. They choose the path of Eric Hoffer’s “true believer,” preferring the simplicity of unswerving faith and incredible brutality over the often-messy business of questioning, debating and even changing positions every so often.

The quest for meaning follows many paths. Islamism proves grotesque in its bloodthirsty righteousness. It’s not that ISIS’ followers aren’t human. It’s that their religious choices forsake basic humanity.

May each of us in this New Year advance our own quest for meaning in the direction of peace, recognizing that we are all children of the same Creator and all deserving of the same respect.

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TOUCHING BASE

I generally see the glass as half filled. Some friends find this amusing. In a world filled by deceit and violence, it’s a real challenge to retain a sense of optimism. Still, I do—particularly during the High Holy Days.

On Rosh Hashanah—this past Wednesday night and yesterday morning—congregants and guests filled the sanctuary at Congregation Sherith Israel. (The Reform movement, as in Israel, marks only the first day of the New Year.) Similarly, worshippers will fill the pews on Yom Kippur—the Day of Atonement—next Friday night and Saturday. In truth, this will represent an anomaly. Yet something positive will take place.

Many Jews active in synagogue life may raise an eyebrow at “twice-a-year” Jews filling so many of the temple’s seats. These people almost never come to Shabbat or holiday services.  They don’t attend Torah study or adult education classes. In fact, they rarely find reason to walk through our doors. While they may pursue secular Jewish activities, Judaism has little or no place in their lives.

Nonetheless, although they have every opportunity to totally break from Judaism, they maintain their synagogue memberships or buy High Holy Day tickets. They feel impelled to touch base with the past and something within themselves.

Touching base should not be minimized. Granted, many—perhaps most—Jews will not attend High Holy Day services at all. But others, who find religion of no appeal, cannot cut the cord. Do they feel guilty, given the historic sufferings of the Jewish people? Do they fear disappointing their parents, living or dead? Do they consider attendance a form of noblesse oblige? Must they let the religious community know that while they have little interest in it, they are big-hearted enough to offer a measure of support?

Perhaps a qualified “yes” informs each answer. I suspect, however, that something more is involved. I suspect that many “twice-a-year Jews” would like to find a path towards God—however they might define God—but don’t know how. I suspect that touching base keeps alive the idea that they remain capable of making a commitment to Judaism besides the writing of checks.

I suspect that in a society grown increasingly secular and often devoid of lasting values, “twice-a-year” Jews hunger for an experience to take them outside of themselves and beyond the material objects of modern “worship.” They seek to connect with something larger and more meaningful. Likewise, I suspect that many Christians who go to church only on Christmas and perhaps Easter experience the same longing. They express a non-denominational, very human desire to find deeper meaning in a bigger world.

I’m glad that our sanctuary fills up even if empty seats abound the rest of the year. I also understand that touching base alone won’t guarantee liberal Judaism’s survival in North America. But touching base keeps the door open. It maintains the possibility that a spark—perhaps many sparks—someday will be lit.

Sometimes—and I write this as an optimist with his feet on the ground—that’s all we can ask.

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