I will not pretend to be an expert in Judaism or its important High Holy Days Rosh Hashanah (the Jewish new year, which began the night of Sept. 18 ) and Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement, which started the night of Sept. 27).
I wholeheartedly believe, however, that people who are not Jewish can learn and utilize so much from a mere elementary knowledge of these days and the encompassing time-period.
As a Christian, I am accustomed to learning from a Jewish rabbi who lived and taught a few centuries ago. Thus, I aspire to learn more about Jesus' religious context from his day in order to better understand his model and teachings.
I also find it instructive to pay attention and learn from Jewish friends and their customs and traditions today. This applies to other authentic faith traditions and practices as well.
Unlike the frightening and violent racial and other extreme divisions on display in our country today, we should equitably and peacefully look for common ground, as well as paying attention, respecting, and learning from different groups and ideas.
At the outset, I ask my Jewish friends and readers to understand if I mischaracterize or misunderstand any aspect or nuance of their important days, seasons, and traditions.
My sense of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur is that they form an important whole. Many Jews prepare for what I will characterize as an annual season by extending it on the front end in a prayerful, preparation mode.
As a Christian, the annual Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur period, also known as the Days of Awe, reminds me of what Lent and Easter can offer as a time for self-examination, re-commitment, and forgiveness of others and ourselves. I have always been puzzled by Christians (me included) historically paying so little, if any, attention to this important annual practice and ritual of our Jewish friends with High Holy Days as bookends. As a Jewish rabbi in his time, Jesus would have been part of such wonderful traditions.
Rosh Hashanah is rooted in portions of Leviticus in the Hebrew Bible (Christian Old Testament) and focuses in part on thankfulness for God's creation. More significant to me is the deeply personal experience of this time. It starts with an intentional and intense 10-day personal faith and life related examination of one's past year, including wrongdoings and things each person would like to change and put behind them.
Stated differently, this annual hard and honest look at how one has lived relative to faith and life-related priorities and intentions during the past year should lead to repentance toward authentic, actual changes in day-to-day living.
The culmination is Yom Kippur: reparation for wrongdoing (i.e., "atonement"), forgiveness and a fresh start for the upcoming year.
During these 10 Days of Awe, some groups gather near water and utilize comforting words from the end of the prophet Micah, including: "[God] will again have compassion upon us; he will tread our iniquities under foot. [God] will cast all our sins into the depths of the sea" (Micah 7:19).
What a vivid ritual and image for letting go of every low part of the prior year to start anew.
Rabbi Harold Kushner expresses the potential experience and result of these High Holy Days in his characteristically wise and practical manner. In a chapter dynamically titled "The Future can Change the Past" in his recent book, "Echoes of Sinai" (Curtis Brown Studios 2018), he vividly describes how transformative the experience can be when observed with absolute seriousness. Per Kushner: "It can liberate you from your shadow ... and let your new self emerge [with] a brand new start....[R]ather than the person you have too often settled for being [y]ou will have become the person God has wanted you to be all along."
Anyone adopting a similar framework any time of year can enhance our respective faith-journeys and ethical quality of life. The model includes important steps:
1. Intentional annual self-examination.
2. Accepting God's and our own forgiveness;.
3. Asking forgiveness of people we might have wronged in some way.
4. Resolving with God's help to actually transform who we are and how we act.
5. Engaging in the hard, disciplined work to make it happen.
For Christians, using Lent and culminating in the celebration of new life at Easter might be an ideal framework. We could look on the time-period as an annual re-awakening to truly repent and change, as well as celebrating what we believe happened centuries ago.
There is no magic in the time or frequency we follow these or similar steps, only in the seriousness and regularity of the practice. We can go through similar periods of introspection whenever we need them to effectuate positive change in living, including loving and respecting others and treating all with equity.
Walt Shelton is a part-time professor at Baylor Law School and an environmental attorney in Austin. He leads discussion groups in association with the Church at Highland Park. His new book "The Daily Practice of Life: Practical Reflections Toward Meaningful Living" is available at waltshelton.com.