Summer is fading, and small winds blow the first leaves off the trees. Soon, the shofar will sound, and we'll be asked for this year's accounting.
Are we ready?
Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur give us the chance to reflect on the texture of our days. When we're young, that task is easier. Ten-year olds might promise not to hit their siblings or cheat on tests. But as the years roll on, the concessions we make to the pressures of living and to the wounded parts of ourselves etch out a more complicated landscape. We pay with our integrity, sometimes, just for having reached this level of adulthood.
"We have sinned against You by being heartless," many of us rise and recite from the prayerbook, "… by speaking recklessly … through offensive talk … by arrogance … through stubbornness … by succumbing to despair."
When we're not happy with how our lives are going, it's easy to be envious and speak disparagingly of others. When we are satisfied with what we've achieved, it's tempting to dismiss or pity those less fortunate. How do we keep a watchful eye over our emotional selves, and prevent this seesawing from despair to arrogance and back again? How do we stay on a steady, grateful path?
The High Holy Days also remind us how time-limited our stay is. Each year, I read these words of the late British Rabbi Morris Joseph:
"That life is fleeting and uncertain is a truth that presses upon the mind with special force as the old year ends and the new begins. Time speeds on, and we go with it, and though we have seen the old year close, we can never be sure of seeing the end of the new."
Hope and Renewal
This is truer now in midlife than it was in our youth. But if we're lucky enough to still be granted time, how do we alter those shortcomings that affront both our Maker and those in our sphere of influence? Is there a way to lighten the baggage we've schlepped with us for so long?
There must be, because these Days of Awe are burgeoning with possibilities of hope and renewal.
Growing up in a culturally Jewish but non-observant area of the Bronx, no one I knew went to synagogue on Rosh Hashanah. We did, however, stay home from school. Our mothers dressed us in nice outfits and took us out to the park. A gut yohr, a zees yohr — "A good year, a sweet year," all the Bundists, Marxists and Labor Socialists of the neighborhood greeted one another on that day.
Theirs was not a religious impulse, but rather one geared toward starting over with a clean slate, which I believe is an innate and universal urge.
Now I go to temple instead of the park, and I try to ponder my shortcomings. I can feel great resistance even to contemplating what behaviors I should change. The list is long, the Hebrew emphatic. My brain and my back are weary. Yet standing and sitting among my fellow yidn, I pray that while my name is still inscribed in the proverbial Book of Life, I will nonetheless push forward toward a better version of myself.
"Rosh Hashanah celebrates the birthday of the world," say the notes in our prayerbook. "It commemorates a time when the cosmic Ruler established his realm in which everything and everyone has a task."
I think, in the end, we're all looking to engage in our rightful task. Typically complacent by nature, we seem to need this annual wake-up call to clear our vision and point us toward those steps that will lead us to the next level.
Vacht oif! fellow yidn. A gut yohr, a zees yohr for us all.
Mara Sokolsky is a freelance writer living in Providence, R.I. Mid/Yid is a new column that will run every other week, alternating with the Singles column.