It's beginning...the Jewish holiday season kicks in late this year. This season begins next Wednesday night (Jewish holidays always begin and end at sundown) with Rosh Hashanah (the New Year). This is followed by Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement) beginning at sundown of Friday, October 3rd followed by the harvest festival of Sukkot starting at sundown on October 8th and ending with Simchat Torah - the evening of October 16th (where the reading cycle of the Torah begins again for a new year). Then it will be relatively quiet with respect to holidays until Chanukah in December. It is a difficult time for our working parents because it is so counter cultural. The rest of the world goes on, and we either have to deal with the inconvenience or opt out of “the rest of the world”.
When our oldest son was a freshman in a public high school, he missed the six days that we observed for the holidays in September and October. His English teacher took him aside and said, “do you really think you’ll be successful in life, missing all these days of schools.” When he related this to us that evening, we asked him if he wanted us to speak to his teacher. He said “no, I took care of it.” Months later the teacher related to us that she learned so much from our son about life and about herself. She said that our son responded to her with “our family, and indeed millions of Jews, do this every year. You will see that I will be successful because I really care about my education and I also care about my traditions.” During this conversation, the teacher apologized to my son saying, “I’m really sorry. I should have known better – I’m Greek Orthodox and my holidays and practices never fit in to what was going on around me. I didn’t always have the strength to stand up to others and assert who I was.” The end of this story is that my son is a successful physician today who always took off these days throughout his education. Additionally, he has maintained his connection to this English teacher.
My son’s response was a gutsy one and our family valued the strength that it took to be counter-cultural in this way. It is hard to do this, but it is also strengthening in so many ways.
This holiday cycle is counter-culture in ways beyond the calendar differences. Unlike Chanukah and Passover that line up with dominant Christian holidays, there is no equivalent to Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. (Sukkot, though, does have strong parallels to Thanksgiving.) The synagogue-centric nature of these holidays is also counter-cultural. For non-Jewish spouses in an interfaith relationship, it is often puzzling that a Jewish partner who appears to care little about religion and prayer would want to attend the very lengthy synagogues services. For many Jews, services are more about connecting to a community than about the actual liturgy or philosophical stance of the holiday. It is often about asserting an identity distinctive from the mainstream.
For me, the most important ‘counter-cultural’ feature of this holiday season is about the foundational values of the holidays. The big theme is the concept of “teshuvah” – turning oneself around. It is a concept filled with promise and belief in the capacity of everyone to improve. Among the practices connected to this idea are asking others for forgiveness, taking stock of personal missteps during the year, and planning for a better new year. In the case of really heinous behavior, there is an understanding that change must be imbedded in a process that takes time, and there is a protocol for that as well.
The idea of asking others for forgiveness even if one isn’t fully aware of having wronged another person is powerful. The phone calls and emails asking for forgiveness from friends and family members began for me this week. The custom, when there is not a specific reference for hurting another person, is to say “if I’ve inadvertently hurt you in any way, please forgive me.”
We live in a society that is so quick to blame others and so slow to take responsibility for even a small slight that could negatively impact a person. The act of whole communities of people asking each other for forgiveness is unusual and powerful. Teachers and adults who asked me and my friends for forgiveness when I was a child during this holiday season particularly inspired me. It is a tradition that we continue at Wornick, and I encourage you to do at home as well. It is just one small step toward creating a more empathetic humanity.
As we enter this holiday season, I wish you all a Shana Tova that brings us all to greater heights, and if I wronged you in any way, please forgive me.
Here’s an inspirational blog from the Huffington post about a unique way that one family spends the day of Rosh Hashanah http://www.huffingtonpost.com/galit-breen/another-jewish-holiday_b_3872009.html