How the High Holidays Can Lift You Up

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Let’s take the term “High Holidays” and analyze it together. What association comes to mind with the word ”high”? To me it symbolizes “uplifting” or “ascending.” In Hebrew, the High Holidays are referred to in a different name: Yamim Noraim or Aseret Yemey Tshova (Ten Days of Repentance), which means being judged by God on your deeds from last year. The adjective “nora” signifies “awe,” yet in modern Hebrew it simply means “terrible.” It is a fascinating contrast, and I take it to a very personal level—sometimes we do bad things to one another, yet we are given a chance to do “Heshbon Nefesh,”, a Hebrew term that means recalculating our soul. For me, repentance is not a theological obligation, but a call for personal improvement.

I would love to share with you habits, both Israeli and Jewish, that can make our High Holidays truly high.

  1. What if food can be used to describe feelings or wishes? This is exactly the case with “The Seder” of Rosh Hashanah. Many Israelis choose not to, yet one blessing in particular originating from the seder is well known in folklore: “let us be a head and not a tail.” In traditional settings, that sentence mentioned God and was said while holding the head of a fish or other animal (for vegans, a lettuce head sounds like a great alternative). Yet in the secular Israeli context it simply means: “be the leader of your life, don’t be dragged down by others.” I believe there is something very empowering in that. It’s a psychological tool of motivation, it shows that others believe in you and that all the hardships are merely steep stairs on the way to the top floor of personal success.
  2. Did you know it’s possible to throw your wrong doings and errors of the past into the ocean? Don’t worry, it won’t pollute the environment. This old Jewish tradition includes going to a water source, usually the sea, and throwing a rock that symbolizes mistakes of the past year. As a facilitator, I find great inspiration in doing this physical deed. When the rocks jump on the water, they modify it’s form. That’s how our mistakes change us, “the wrong doing” becomes “the right doing” as a result of a learned experience. To be aware of that change, just like being aware of how the rock changes the shape of the water, is what makes us “heads and not tails.”
  3. While being secular, I do find great value in fasting during Yom Kippur. For me it has nothing to do with God judging me, and it has everything to do with me judging myself. By fasting just for one day, it allows me to reflect in a way that every day routine makes difficult. That hunger I feel on Yom Kippur reminds me of how hungry, metaphorically, people are to forgive and be forgiven. It creates a sense of togetherness. In Hebrew, this desire to do good is called “tzedakah,” which also includes justice, and helping others. Or in other words: look back, give forward and lift up!

I wish you a Shana Tova Umetukah with apples and honey! In Israel, we send or give cards wishing a happy new Jewish year to friends and family, and I hope you’ll do the same with the closest people to you–the smile on their face will be priceless. And while you write it, I recommend listening to a lovely old prayer: “Adon Haselichot,” a Middle Eastern Jewish chant about compassion and an honest request to be forgiven.

We have a rare chance to look back and lift up, to give a real tzakada. The 14th Street Y is launching a Jewish New Year campaign that will include events in which you can participate, help those in need, and support a charitable cause! Tune in on Friday for the big reveal!

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