Thursday, August 12, 2010

When the Days of Awe Come Early

The Jewish New Year also referred to as the Days of Awe, begin on the evening of September 8. However, at times, events add themselves to the questions of purpose and being during different times of the year and for different reasons. Now is one of those times.

How many of us have actually ever witnessed a death? We live and we all know that eventually we will all die. But how many of us are truly confronted with our own mortality way before its our own time? That happened to me yesterday. Oh I have buried family and persons who were important in my life to be sure, but until yesterday I had never actually witnessed death. Yesterday, as I drove along a roadway a beautiful yellow bird was sucked into the wheel base of an oncoming car. I doubt the driver of the car even saw the bird for it was flying so low to the ground. The bird was crushed by the wheels. Its life was gone. But everything continued unabated. There was no choir of lamentations, no sermon, and no message from heaven. The world continued on, except for me. I pulled over and recited Kaddish, the Jewish prayer for the dead.

While Kaddish extols the greatness of God, it reminds us of the continuity of life even in the wake of death. Life is celebrated even at a funeral. Life is the bedrock of our existence. We cherish life and we cherish our children’s lives. We seek to make better what we are given and strive constantly to secure for ourselves and our posterity the truth of life’s purpose.

In a few weeks the Jewish community will enter the time of the year called the Days of Awe. It is a religious period beginning with the holiday of Rosh Hashanah (Jewish New Year) culminating ten days later with Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement). During this period we challenge ourselves to find ways to promise to live more in the ways that God would have wanted. There are special meals, symbols and prayers. It is a tactile actualization of our wishes and our hopes. But even so, it is much more than rituals and tradition, it is all about our soul.

There is a story about a great Rabbi Hillel. He was challenged once by a recalcitrant student about what is the purpose of the Torah. Can you teach me the Torah, he was asked while I stand on one foot? Other Rabbis had beaten the upstart student for his impudence. But Hillel thought and quietly told the student, that the purpose of the Torah is to treat others as you would be treated. That the rest is merely study, so he should now go study. So we review our world, ask god for forgiveness and vow to do what is right.

Now many also misunderstand the purpose of these ten holy days. We are exhorted to ask God for forgiveness for all sins committed against God, but for all sins and crimes, committed against our fellow man we are required to ask the injured for forgiveness. Perhaps that is why the nation of Israel is so ready to investigate itself (unlike her enemies and even some of her friends) and to find out just what it did or did not do right in any given situation. For it is just how a Jewish person is raised. We challenge ourselves to be as good as we can be and then we challenge ourselves to be even better.

We are required to pay to society a debt for our failure to live by the rule of law, ethics or morals. No amount of praying, no pat on the head from your rabbi, will remove a sin that you committed against a fellow human being without asking forgiveness from the injured. It is perhaps one of the hardest parts of being a Jew. To open yourself up to other persons, to allow ourselves to be so vulnerable, is not the way human beings like to function. But that is what is required, so what we also pray for is the strength to ask someone for forgiveness.

Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are not days of hoopla and fireworks. Yet they are the most beautiful of holidays. It is a quest to find what is better in ourselves. It is reflective, contemplative and soul searching. It is a time to review our preferences, our wants, and our desires. We rethink our belief systems and restructure our priorities. We realize the tenuousness of life and how fragile it all happens to be. We pray that God will hear our exhortations and he will inscribe us in the Book of Life (Sefer HaChaim) with a good year.

Another interesting aspect of the Jewish New Year is the Torah portion that is read. We read every year, about Abraham’s banishment of Hagar and Ishmael. For eons Jews have debated not only the meaning of this story, for every story in the Bible has a meaning beyond the obvious, but its purpose and why it is included in the New Year liturgy. What does it mean? What can it teach us? Where was God and why did he allow this? How human are the leaders that we revere? How could a man, Abraham, so beloved of God, be so weak in the face of his wife, Sarah's, jealousy and banish from his home, one of his sons (the remaining son being Isaac) without any thought or care (some rabbis go so far to excuse it by saying Ishmael was a grown man so it was ok)? The sheer embarrassment within the community to an action taken over 3500 years ago still baffles, and appalls us and causes shame. How could Abraham have not foreseen any consequences to his actions? While the sons came back together to bury their father in Hebron at the Cave of the Machpelah, what of their descendents? Perhaps that is the lesson of the banishment of Ishmael. Consequences to actions are farther reaching than we might think. So before you act, really think through what you are about to do and who you are going to hurt or help, if the case may be.

So yesterday I said Kaddish for a beautiful little yellow bird who lost its life in a senseless and useless accident. My Days of Awe have come early. The Sefer HaChaim for this year has not yet closed but the new one calls out to me. Sometimes God’s messages are clear and sometimes you need a real smackdown. But for now I need to figure out why that poor bird had to die so that I would remember how flawed I am and how human all of us happen to be.

(OK the wrong holiday, this song is from the Prince of Egypt which is about Passover, but I thought it fit the post. The hebrew extols the greatness of God.)

So  happy Jewish New Year, albiet early, but it seems that wishing everyone  Shana Tovah, hebrew for Happy New Year, early is now in vogue, even Shaq has gotten into the act.

Until next time,