Today is Rosh Hashanah, the New Year of the Jewish people. No Monday question -- the High Holy Days are no time for contemplating other people's wrongdoing! -- but here is a piece I wrote several years back, which explain the Jewish fall holidays:
If you're confused about all those Jewish holidays in the fall ... you're not the only one. (Even if you're Jewish yourself!) There are plenty of books and guides online that can clear things up or mystify you even further, but here's what it all means to me. I don't know why the metaphor of an ocean voyage is the one I use for the holy days. I grew up in Kansas, for heaven's sake. But this is what works.
The month before Rosh Hashanah is Elul. During Elul, we are supposed to do a kind of "spiritual accounting" of the past year, and reflect on what we have done right or wrong. This is like preparing for a big sailing trip. What questions would you be asking yourself if you were going on a long ocean voyage -- I don't mean a cruise, I mean the kind where you're part of the crew? I think they'd be questions like this: What do I really need to take with me in order to survive? What should I throw out? Who should I say goodbye to, and what should I say? Do I owe anyone apologies? Do I owe anyone money, or favors, or their copy of The Yiddish Policemen's Union back? Am I in good enough shape for the rigors of this journey? What do I need to do to prepare myself? Do I have illnesses or injuries that need tending before I go?
Then, Rosh Hashanah! The New Year! And our spiritual ship is launched. Rosh Hashanah is serious, but joyful. There is risk ahead but great adventure. We all wear our best clothes and wish each other a happy journey.
The 10 days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are known as "The Days of Awe." Everything you do on these days is fraught with significance: we try to be as observant as possible, as strict with ourselves and forgiving of others as we can. Imagine living on a ship, where a mistake might cost you a limb or life, where you must get along with your shipmates at all cost. The Days of Awe are a time for being very care-full.
And then -- shipwreck! Yom Kippur! The ship of our souls and our best intentions is not enough to keep us afloat, and we crash. We fast. We do not wash. We live the day, as much as possible, like walking dead, taking no food, no water, no joy in our own bodies or those of others. We allow ourselves to be shaken and wrecked. And yet, at the end of the day, we break our fast together, and celebrate that we have survived.
But survival after shipwreck isn't easy. We're on a desert island now, aren't we? So we built huts! The next holiday -- not properly considered one of the High Holy Days, but still connected -- is Sukkot. Sukkot is a harvest festival, celebrated by building booths (the sukkahs) and eating and sleeping outdoors. Removed from its agricultural meaning, and put into the context of the HHDs, Sukkot can be seen as a kind of regrouping after the shipwreck of Yom Kippur. We are safe. We are alive. We are with our loved ones. But we are not comfortable yet. We've found a desert island to sustain us, but we haven't claimed it as our land or built a civilization on it. Sukkot celebrates the joyful body, the joyful community. But it isn't complete.
And then -- Simchat Torah. Which literally means, "Happy Torah." We read the Torah completely through every year, with a different portion for each Shabbat. Simchat Torah celebrates the end of one year's Torah cycle, and the beginning of another. This -- this is when we say, "We have survived. And we have built something. And that thing will continue beyond our short lives." We celebrate living, not just surviving. Peoplehood, not just community. Civilization, not just culture. We aren't refugees on a desert island any more. We are citizens and nation builders.
So there it is. We prepare for the voyage, we launch the ship, we sail as careful and true as we can, we wreck ourselves anyway, we drag our bodies to shore and find nourishment there, and then we begin to build something to be proud of.
Every year, we get to do this.
Every year, this wonderful adventure.
I set sail tonight.
If you can't pronounce chag sameach, then wish me bon voyage.
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