No, I’m not being flippant or disrespectful of religion. Even though I am a very secular person in many of my habits and thoughts, i know that the G-d of Israel exists and there can be no further proof, in my mind, of His (or Her) eternal presence than the very survival of the Jewish people. Indeed, for all the naysayers, atheists and unbelievers, even among my own people, none of them can give me a secular explanation as to the illogical and inherently mystifying epoch of Jewish survival and renaissance. To me, keeping a kosher home does not make one religious( my home is 100% kosher, not for fear of Leviticus but it is safe for any Jew to eat in my dining room, hellion or haredi) but seeing the world through the eyes of a “Yiddishe neshoma’, a “Jewish soul” does.
Nothing tests the soul of a secular person like me than the month of Elul. For during Elul, the High Holidays of Rosh HaShana (New Year, or literally, Head of the Year), Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement) and the holiday of Sukkot (Booths) provide a triple does of much introspection and account taking. Sure, there are those among us who only see these as days off from school and work, but no Jew, however non-religious, feels completely at ease during the Ten Days of Awe from Rosh HaShana till Yom Kippur.
Rosh HaShana is the new year when, Biblically speaking, G-d created the universe. What the Jewish people are observing is the miracle of creation. Now, of course, for you Darwinian adherents, the very idea that the universe is only 5,775 years old, must seem totally ridiculous. But the number of supposed years in truly irrelevant as it is the idea of life and birth that is being commemorated. Yeah, yeah, some of you must be saying that this guy is not a rabbi (my uncle Walter, z”l, would have loved that) nor is he a Talmud scholar (my eyes are bad enough never mind reading such small and delicately written print) but I have a Jewish right to my opinion. Perhaps in Rosh HaShana resides the immutable love for life and living that is one of the survival tools of our much maligned people. After all, our enemies today say that our love of life is one of our weaknesses as they worship death. The quote paraphrased, is the Jews love life as much as we seek death. That alone, might explain Israel’s unapologetic need for strong defense.
For ten days between the New Year and the Day of Atonement, it is traditionally held that G-d examines our deeds and makes the decision over what shall happen to each of us. You know, who shall live, who shall die, who shall prosper and who shall become impoverished. In our tradition, it is during this time of the year that personal debts were either reconciled or forgiven and a very vital and necessary act is demanded and must be accomplished. Everyone is emboldened to seek out all those of their neighbors and family whom they have perchance wronged in some way and ask for forgiveness. An amazing concept in that G-d does not have the power to forgive an individual for sins against other men, but only individuals can make an act of contrition and plead for understanding with a sincere apology, This period is also one where charity should be given, alms and loans to be provided for the indigent and the needy. For it is written that charity “saves from death.” In Hebrew, the word often used for the giving of charity and for acts of philanthropy in “tzedakah,” which also means “justice.” A truly righteous concept.
Yom Kippur makes every Jew a bit uneasy. Sure, the streets of Israel are full of youngsters riding their bicycles as there is no traffic on the roads. Even the busiest highways are devoid of any vehicular activity, save the possible need for an ambulance or military/police presence.
For it is on this awesome day when the Jewish people, as a single nation, appeals to G-d to forgive its sins against Him (or Her). This is a major misconception among many of our people-that on Yom Kippur we extol the L-rd for redress of individual acts, when it is a time for seeking relief from a terrible judgement from the Most High. The entire House of David, as one voice in many lands and in different time zones, calls out for the forgiveness of G-d. As it is said, “slach lanu”- “pardon us.” The entire congregation, as one, beats their breasts and feels the strength of its unified act of contrition.
Believe me, it is not just for a supercilious reason that some Jews are only found in their synagogues on these days and spend the rest of the year in far less loftier pursuits. I have never, in my experience, witnessed in any temple that I have attended, the need for renting hundreds of chairs and filling the ballrooms usually used for wedding and bar/bat mitzvah receptions, so full of worshippers. Now I must admit that as a youth, I avoided synagogue like the plague during the year. But on Rosh HaShana and Yom Kippur ( both school holidays in the Bronx of my childhood) I had no choice, but to go to the temple, at least for enough time, to kiss my grandparents and then, flee as fast as I could homewards to change into my street clothes, grab my baseball glove, Louisville Slugger and softball clincher, and meet my pals (all who were similarly sentenced to being embarrassed by being smooched by their elderly relatives) in the park for our day of ball playing.
Yom Kippur is also a day of fasting, not bathing, abstaining from sex (this is not a hardship for a 10 year old boy, but something he will learn much later to attempt to make up) , smoking, even brushing your teeth. It is supposed be a period when a person “afflicts one’s soul,” and the acts of eating and bathing appear as vanities. I also distinctly remember the annual sermon given by the rabbi during the Rosh HaShana service, who warned the congregation, especially those who were elderly, that they must take their prescription medications, even during the fast, as health was far more important than possibly becoming ill and if they needed to drink or eat before taking their drugs, or with their medications,they were commanded to do so.
Sukkot (Booths) soon follows these two awesome holidays and is one filled ( at last) with joy, celebration and feasting. Sukkot commemorates the temporary structures that the Jewish people lived in during their sojourn to the homeland that G-d had promised them. It also, like many of our holidays, celebrates the coming of the rainy season in the land of Israel, that brings the land out of the heat and dryness of the summer months and re-invigorates the soil.
Religious folks will erect these Sukkot on their balconies or in their backyards and decorate them with fruits and flowers. Families will take their meals in the sukkah and some will even sleep in the booth whose roof must be thatched so that the night’s stars might be visible. After the previous two holidays, Sukkot is a blessed time for not only appreciating creation, but for the celebration of family, the sweetness of the harvest fruits and the remembrance of the perilous trek our ancestors made over 3000 years ago to inherit this tiny Jewish country.
On a personal note, this time of year has always hung heavy for me as my beloved maternal grandmother z”l, passed away just before Rosh HaShana over four decades ago. As I write this, her framed photograph sits on my desk. She was a religious woman, not orthodox in the present definition, she didn’t wear a sheitel, but she spoke a vibrant and fluent Yiddish, and kept a strictly kosher home . I remember being admonished thousands of times that I was reaching for the “milchig’ (dairy) silverware drawer when I sat down for a meat sandwich or the “fleishig’ (meat) drawer for a spoon to mix my chocolate milk. Her death marked the end of my childhood after lovingly had her for the first 22 years of my life. But her memory, and I firmly believe her spirit, has brought me not only to this wonderful country, but to these pages where I can share a bit of what she instilled in my soul.
Chag Rosh HaShana Same’ach v’ Gmar Chatima Tova l’ kol Am Israel!