I thoroughly enjoyed my second High Holiday season. A year ago, I was just dipping my toe into the proverbial waters of Judaism. The words of Rabbi Zedek still stick with me: “Once you stop wanting to be a Jew, and actually become a Jew, you are a Jew.” There is the process of learning, and another process entirely of doing. Up until July this year, I was largely just learning but not living a Jewish life. Meeting with Rabbi Greene, we decided that I’d need a year of “living Jewishly” before I could enter the Mikvah and have a Beit Din and take my Hebrew name. That would entail monthly meetings, assigned readings, attending services, keeping a journal for reflection, joining Jewish organizations, and ritual observance in the home. Slowly but surely, I can not only “talk the talk”, but am beginning to walk the walk as well. Each day, I feel more confident in my choice to do the radical act of embracing a faith, a culture, and a people – after rejecting any for so long.
As the High Holidays approached, I read This is Real, and You are Complete Unprepared, by Rabbi Alan Lew. I learned of the process of Teshuvah, or turning. It is a process not just of seeking repentance, but learning from behaviors and situations to do differently next time. Had I actually made turns for the better? When faced with difficult situations, how did I treat those around me? Was I a net positive on the world? Was I a good friend, a loving husband, a thoughtful child? Teshuvah requires taking inventory of one’s actions. It is not mere regret for the things left undone and the words unsaid. It is action-oriented and it is urgent.
Rosh Hashanah symbolizes the creation of the world. On this day we celebrate the birth of the world, and our own regeneration. As the Shofar blasts we embrace the joy of becoming, while cognizant that the hour of judgment is fast approaching. On Kol Nidre we annul all our vows, able to start anew to do better. The haunting melody of the thrice repeated Kol Nidre pierces one’s soul, jump starting a kind of catharsis. On Yom Kippur we simulate our own deaths. The gate closes and our names are either inscribed into the Book of Life, or the Book of Death. Had I done enough to be inscribed into the Book of Life?
The year 5776 was the most challenging of my life. Between being diagnosed with MS, partial vision loss, the strain of a demanding job undergoing frequent leadership changes, my wife’s myriad health concerns, the sudden and traumatic death of the beloved family pet, a shifting house foundation with accompanying issues, and more – 5776 was a year I was happy to see in the rear view. Yet, those challenges didn’t break us. If anything, my wife and I emerged far stronger, our relationship far closer.
I will admit to not being naturally empathetic. My years in Chicago working in non-profits or as a government employee have profoundly changed me. My wife’s own history in overcoming constant adversity and emerging as an advocate and coalition builder has changed me. The love of my wife and friends who constantly nourish my interests and support my goals has changed me. It is a work in progress, but the ethos of Judaism to “choose life” feels increasingly natural. Years ago, Judaism would likely not have been a faith I would have embraced, even if all the events of my life have pointed me towards it. So as the High Holy Days approached, I thought a lot about the past year’s journey. Was I living up to the person I could and should be? Despite progress, the answer is, and will always be, no.
But just because we will never attain perfection, whatever that means, doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try. If we let ourselves become vulnerable, and give ourselves space to examine the uncomfortable truths of our lives, what can we discover? What can we achieve if we are willing to put in the difficult and often arduous work of Teshuvah? More than ever, I intend to find out in 5777.
The High Holidays embody the beauty and strength of the Jewish tradition. My Temple is blessed to have a beautiful choir and deeply thought-provoking Rabbis. In 5776, Rosh Hashanah, Kol Nidre, and Yom Kippur were entirely new and unfamiliar. As my familiarity has increased, the meaning has deepened. This year’s services, I felt a surge in meditative spirituality, I simply cannot quantify. As I become more comfortable with the transliterations (Hebrew is an eventual goal) and the melodies, I find myself moving from a careful observer to an active participant. Knowing the Sh’ma, it now greets me when I awake, and when I lie down to bed. I am learning how to ask Jewish questions that deal less with the how, and more with the why. Joining a Jewish volunteer group, I no longer readily offer that I am in the conversion process, because in my heart and in my soul, I am a Jew. Even though there is a lifetime of knowledge and experiences I have missed out on without a Jewish past, I can enjoy a Jewish present and a Jewish future.
Shana Tova. May 5777 be a sweet and productive year for all. I am excited to embrace all that comes between these High Holidays and the next.