Dear JCCNS Members and Community,
The quote “may you live in interesting times,” which at first blush seems to be a blessing, is actually a mistaken English translation of a non-existent Chinese curse. Yet, that quote (filled with irony) does seem rather apt for our current times. From what I’ve seen and read, many do feel “cursed,” living through a time plagued with both an international health pandemic and so much national discord that it has made some question the very foundations of our country and society.
Considering our present-day environment, I would say the Jewish high holidays, as different and unprecedented as they may end up being in terms of practice, could not come soon enough. The idea of taking stock of and reflecting on one’s actions from the past year inevitably leads to a process of personal soul searching on what motivates and animates our individual daily behavior. We are particularly challenged in this election year as we live in an uncompromising and strident period, where pundits seem to be telling us what we should believe and how we should frame the circumstances of our lives.
How, then, are we to make sense of the Covid-19 pandemic and the accompanying financial, mental and physical trauma that we collectively and individually now face, as we huddle and reflect at home during the holiest days of the Jewish calendar? How do we continue to find meaning in our world and purpose in our personal lives?
The wisdom of the serenity prayer may be a good start: “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.” Many of us (I would even venture to say MOST of us) can no longer turn on the news or read a newspaper because of the frustration, and sometimes even anger, it engenders. We should be grateful that our faith, Judaism, a religion focused on action and behavior, provides us with the Torah and other classic texts that can and will serve as a “playbook” to help us cope with and ultimately rise above the emotional turmoil that has afflicted so many over the past seven months.
The Jewish notion of Tikkun Olam, repairing the world, has often led Jews to be at the forefront of social justice causes in America, and I would submit, supported by Jewish scripture and by secular theories of change, that fostering meaningful change in our world must begin with transforming and perfecting ourselves.
Focusing on ourselves and looking within is a helpful process when all else seems to be out of control. It is both a practical and elevating path to serenity and fulfillment that not only enhances our relationships with those closest to us, but also ultimately leads to improving our world in a tangible and meaningful way. It is worth noting in this regard a line from Pirket Avot (a compilation of Jewish wisdom) that suggests: To save one life is to be considered as if you have saved the whole world. Perhaps this year, while so much else around us seems so out of our control, we can each simplify our focus by looking inward and working on what IS within our own grasp, namely ourselves.
I always look at this time of year as an opportunity that can be maximized by making a realistic plan of self-improvement, and as we begin the new year by committing to it during these days of awe. As Elie Wiesel famously wrote, “I must do something with my life. It is too serious to play games with anymore, because in my place, someone else could have been saved.”
I suggest for your consideration some basic ideas from our tradition that seem especially appropriate this year as we contemplate our never-ending journey of self-improvement:
- Err on the side of merit, give others the benefit of the doubt and ascribe to them the most positive motivations;
- Recognize the experience of others, try to walk in their shoes even if they can’t or won’t recognize your journey;
- Be merciful to yourself and to others as you want your God to be merciful to you and to forgive your transgressions.
And finally, as the great contemporary Rabbi Jonathan Sachs said, “I believe that listening is one of the greatest arts. It opens us to God, our fellow humans, and the beauties of nature.”
Now is the time to re-frame our perception of the world and our fellow citizens. We need more than ever to focus on our common humanity, not our differences, and how we can individually raise ourselves up to a higher level of understanding exactly what the world needs from us. I hope and pray that our virtual synagogue experiences will duplicate the aura of solemnity and purpose that characterizes our typical in-person high holiday services, and that they help propel all of us toward greater peace of mind, personal growth, and commitment to good deeds. Let us continue to move forward to better ourselves and the world around us and let us commit to doing so, today.
Chag Rosh Hashanah Sameach. May you be inscribed in the Book of Life.