Posts Tagged ‘Yom Kippur’

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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YOM KIPPUR, JOGGERS AND THE ARAB WORLD

As should be obvious from last week’s post, “Rosh Hashanah, China and ISIS,” I like finding connections. So as the High Holy Days prepare to conclude, I offer some new ones. If they seem far-fetched, think about the complexity of human nature.

Let’s start with joggers. A few days ago, I was walking on Lake Street. A jogger was running east on the opposite sidewalk. A car also was heading east. At the corner, the jogger made a sudden left turn to cross the street at a pedestrian-protected intersection. The car approached but didn’t yield. The jogger came to a sudden stop and shook his fist.

From what I witnessed, the jogger made a misguided assumption that the driver would see him. As an avid walker and former runner as well as motorist, I know that’s foolish. Yes, all too many drivers are oblivious. At the same time, runners and pedestrians often pop out of virtually concealed positions at corners, sometimes mid-block, unaware that drivers often can’t see them. Does responsibility rest only with the other guy? What about common sense? As a long-ago New York City public service campaign once warned, “You could be right. Dead right.”

Which leads to Hisham Melhem, bureau chief of Al Arabiya News Channel in Washington, DC. Last Saturday he wrote a risky article, “Who brought the Arabs to this nadir?” According to Melhem, Arabs—particularly intellectuals, activists and opinion makers—won’t come to grips with the terrible tragedies inflicting the Arab world until they assume the main responsibility for them. The Arabs must “own their problems.” Like the jogger, many—seemingly most—Arabs feel free to point fingers at America, Israel, Europe, Lady Gaga—but never at themselves.

Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, ties in perfectly. Jews, concluding ten days of soul-searching, must own our misdeeds to find forgiveness. Sins against God require repentance, so Jews will fill synagogues tonight and tomorrow. But prayer does not atone for sins against people. We must ask their forgiveness. And in all cases, we must not only recognize wrongdoing and vow not to repeat it—we must actually do what is right.

It’s hard for all of us to own our mistakes. Joggers, walkers, cyclists and motorists must understand that we all use the same streets and sidewalks. Our right to move where we want when we want must be placed in perspective. So too, the Arab world must learn to respect others. That also goes for the rest of us too often wrapped smugly inside borders, cultures and religions that define ourselves as good and anyone different as bad.

None of us is perfect. That, I believe, is the appeal of Yom Kippur to many Jews who otherwise never attend synagogue. At some level they seek a moral, even spiritual, accounting. They recognize the need to accept, if only for one day, that they as individuals are not the sole measure of the world.

In this New Year 5775, may we build new connections. In doing so, may we build the prospects for peace.

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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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