How We Treat Each Other: Reflecting on the Jewish High Holidays

Tiles from the game "Scrabble" form the words "Please Forgive Me." Photo: Brett Jordan/Unsplash

One of the unique joys of working at an interfaith organization is that not only am I afforded flexible days off to observe my community’s holidays and work on others, but as various communities’ holidays near, we take time as an organization to learn from our colleagues who are observing them. Thus, as we entered the Jewish High Holiday season this fall, I was honored to be asked to share some interfaith literacy at a staff meeting about what the High Holidays mean to me. Even over Zoom, it meant a lot to me to be able to share this reflection, and I was touched by my colleagues’ response.

The Jewish community around the world is in the midst of the annual “High Holidays,” which starts with Rosh Hashanah – the Jewish New Year, which was last Tuesday and Wednesday – proceeds to Yom Kippur – the day of atonement, beginning tonight – and then concludes with Sukkot and Simchat Torah. For Jews who observe these holidays, they are something of an emotional roller coaster. We start off really high with the celebration of the New Year; traditionally Jews eat apples dipped in honey to symbolize a sweet new year and we listen to the blast of the shofar – which is a kind of trumpet made from a ram’s horn – that is meant to spiritually “wake us up.”

But then we immediately plunge into what is known as the “days of repentance” – which we are in the midst of now – before Yom Kippur. The somewhat harsh metaphor of these holidays holds that on Rosh Hashanah, God judges the deeds of every human and determines whether or not to re-inscribe us in the “Book of Life” for another year. We recite a rather morbid prayer on both Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur that culminates in a litany of all the ways that we might die in the year to come: “who by water and who by fire, who by sword and who by beast, who by famine and who by thirst, who by earthquake and who by plague…”

For obvious reasons, during the pandemic this prayer – as well as the entire liturgy – has had an added somberness and solemnity for the community, even as we listen to it over Zoom. It feels as though we all know people who were with us last year but not this year, and their absence fills the digital space between us.

But, significantly, God only “pencils it in” on Rosh Hashanah. We all then have 10 days to repent and repair and commit to doing better before our fates are symbolically sealed on Yom Kippur. During the days of repentance, we are exhorted to make amends for all the misdeeds and mistakes and harm we have caused in the previous year, whether knowingly or unknowingly. This past weekend, my son’s religious school had an outdoor celebration for the new year, as well as a reflection on the days of repentance. Rabbi Rebecca Milder taught that the central message of this ritual can be summed up in three sentences, which she had all of the children read out loud in unison: “We all make mistakes. I am sorry. I am learning to do better.”

It has always been significant to me that while much of the formal observance of these holidays takes place at the synagogue and is directed toward God, the liturgy itself makes clear that God can only forgive us for misdeeds against God. For failings and wrongs that we have committed against each other – toward other people – we are obligated to seek them out and ask their forgiveness. On Yom Kippur we recite: “For failings against God, the day of atonement atones, but for failings against each other the day of atonement cannot atone until we seek forgiveness from those we have wronged.” In other words, our fate – our very life and death – is inherently and inexorably bound up in how we treat each other.

This is a powerful message, and one that constitutes part of my theology of interfaith cooperation. What do I owe my fellow humans? How do I do right by them? These are hard questions, made especially hard by the dizzyingly diverse world that we all now inhabit. It is not only to other Jews that I must do right and atone for my failures. How do I do right by all the people with whom I interact when they are all so different, and have such different ideas of what is right? Doing right by some of my family, friends, and colleagues surely looks different than doing right by others, for all kinds of obvious and important reasons.

But nonetheless, I am called to do right by everyone and seek forgiveness for my inevitable shortcomings. So, during our staff meeting on Monday morning, I asked for my colleagues’ forgiveness: “I want to say that I am genuinely sorry for all my mistakes and failings this year; for the ways that I have caused harm knowingly or unknowingly; by what I’ve done and by what I haven’t done; for all the emails that I haven’t answered and for all the ones that I wrote too quickly … I ask your forgiveness.”

Shortly after Yom Kippur, we move on to Sukkot, which is a harvest festival. Traditionally Jews build what’s called a sukkah in their backyard; it’s a temporary hut built outdoors. We are meant to spend as much time in it as we can, eating meals and inviting others to join us. Sukkot is a harvest festival in both the literal sense of the word – we celebrate the fall harvest of crops – but also in a spiritual sense: we harvest the fruits of our spiritual renewal.

Directly following Sukkot is Simchat Torah, when we finish the yearly cycle of reading the Torah and immediately start it again. On Simchat Torah, we read the very end of Deuteronomy, and then we respool the entire piece of parchment on which the Torah is written and read from the very beginning of Genesis: “In the beginning … the earth was without form and void and darkness was on the face of the deep. … And God said, ‘Let there be light.’”

The High Holidays are a period seeped with themes of both decay and renewal, finality and perpetuity, death and life. Rabbi Fred Reeves of KAM Isaiah Israel taught this year that the message of the holidays ought not to be fear that if we are not good enough, we will be killed in punishment. Rather, it is a recognition that we simply do not know what will befall any of us in the year to come. We don’t know how much time we have left in our lives. And so the High Holidays call us to live every day as if it were our last; as though this is our last opportunity to do right by each other and be the version of ourselves that we aspire to be.

We don’t know what the year 5782 – as it is in the Hebrew calendar – has in store for any of us. But we have the power to act in a way to do right by each other and bring a little more peace and love and joy into this profoundly broken world. And that starts by acknowledging our essential humanity: We all make mistakes. I am sorry. I am learning to do better.

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The opinions contained in this piece are solely the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the views of Interfaith Youth Core. Interfaith America encourages a wide range of views and strives to maintain a respectful tone with a goal of greater understanding and cooperation between people of different faiths, worldviews, and traditions.