I say, “in theory,” because calling a set of days “holy” does not automatically make them relevant to us as individuals. How many of us associate Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur with endless prayers that elude us whether we’re reading them in Hebrew or English? How many depend too much on the rabbi’s sermon to do our inspirational work for the rest of the year? We hear, “on Rosh Hashanah it is written and on Yom Kippur it is sealed,” and don’t know what to make of such an esoteric idea. We’re not all that excited about apples and honey. In short, we struggle to put the “holy” in holiday.
Well, this is the year to get out of that High Holiday rut! I have some ideas to change my approach (and your approach) to our holiday season. If we want this year’s holidays to feel different, then we have to try something new.
I’m not going to tell you to skip going to synagogue if being together as a family and checking in with your Jewish community is an important part of your Jewish rhythm and identity. (For many people, that’s exactly what High Holiday services do, and that’s not a bad thing at all.) However, these ideas have nothing to do with the synagogue setting. They’re for every type of Jew from the most secular to the most observant, from the completely unaffiliated to the people who join three synagogues because they (okay, my husband and I) can’t find the one perfect fit.
Three Ideas to Add Depth and Meaning to the High Holidays
1. Surprise Someone With a Personal Letter
Last year I heard about an old German Jewish minhag (custom) to hide letters to a spouse and children in their High Holiday prayer books before Rosh Hashanah. The letters would outline everything you appreciate these special people and your hopes for them in the upcoming year.
I would expand this idea to include other family members and friends. When giving a letter to those not going to synagogue or to those without their own prayer books, then I’d suggest hiding the letter under someone’s plate at the holiday dinner, slipping it under a pillow, or even sending it in the mail. (With a stamp, not email.) How wonderful would it be to receive a detailed, personal letter like that in honor of the Jewish new year?
2. To Let Go of a Grudge, Make a List of Your Faults
In the month of Elul (right now!) we’re supposed to ask forgiveness from people we’ve hurt, and grant forgiveness, too. I can tell you that for me, it’s far easier to say I’m sorry than to let go of a grudge, and I’m tired of wasting time and energy with my hesitation to move forward in a relationship. For advice on getting rid of a grudge, I spoke to one of my rabbis in town, Rabbi David Fredman of Aish Minnesota, who gave me the list of faults idea that he learned from one of his favorite teachers, Rabbi Yitzchak Berkovits.
Here’s what you do: Write down your name and all of your personality faults and foibles and maybe even the ways you have wronged others. Next, cover up your name and ask yourself if you would you want to be “this person’s” friend. Rabbi Fredman said, “We can tolerate ourselves despite our own faults because we understand that all of our ‘issues’ have a context. We can explain why we acted the way we did or why we do the things we do on a regular basis: I was weak, tired, worn out, frustrated, and the many other excuses we create to justify our behavior. Part of the process of forgiveness and maturity in relationships is learning to do this for friends and family as well.”
In other words, I need to do a better job giving people the benefit of the doubt, which was my Rosh Hashanah “resolution” and still needs improvement this year. Like anyone, I’m a work in progress.
3. Don’t Forget to Focus on the Good
On Yom Kippur, one of the most important prayers we repeat numerous times is the Al Chet, which is the prayer where, as a group, we name all the ways we’ve transgressed. (“For the sin we committed by” evil speech, gluttony, disrespecting parents, lying, excessive pride, dishonesty in business–you get the idea.) In his book, A Code of Jewish Ethics,Rabbi Joseph Telushkin suggests that we also focus on the good we’ve done over the past year and the good we can do in the year ahead.
Some examples Rabbi Telushkin provides are, “For the mitzvah we performed by knowing embarrassing information about someone and not passing it on.” “For the mitzvah we performed by treating our children and spouse with the same kindness we extend to guests.” I loved his idea to spend some part of Yom Kippur (or any time in the month of Elul) considering how the small ways we treat people well adds up over the year and how we can do more this next year. The entire text of Telushkin’s prayer is here.
If you’re in a High Holiday rut, I hope these ideas help. And if you have other suggestions, go ahead and share them here.