There are many challenges to being Jewish in America. Here, unlike in Israel, the world doesn’t stop for Rosh Hashanah. Nor does it honor the Sabbath, as we do, on Saturday. To raise children Jewishly requires imposing a schedule on them that adds hours of study on top of regular school hours. That lengthens the odds of the kids liking being Jewish.
One additional obstacle to being Jewish is that Hebrew is not compatible with English. The latter is literal, while the former is visual. Not only is that a problem in terms of accurately transmitting Jewish values. It also allows the possibility of misreading the importance of language in accessing Jewish values and priorities. The literal nature of English allows people to manipulate with it. Words are cheap. It can be tempting to say one thing and do another. “Do as I say, not as I do”, is an expression many of us heard from authorities, as we were growing up. Sometimes we see it on the road when Highway Patrol cars weave through traffic, without signaling, while looking for drivers, doing the same, to ticket. Words and deeds remain disconnected.
In Hebrew, words are also substance, things; the word “davar” means “word” and “thing”. What we say is considered so important that the evening service introducing Yom Kippur, Kol Nidre, is dedicated to that subject: that we watch carefully what we say over the year and “keep” our “word”. Even the process of the Days of Awe is vastly different than the English suggests. We are not “sinners” in need of God’s intervention to remove an otherwise indelible stain, an overwhelming and intimidating prospect. We are good and decent people, who do “Chet”, make mistakes and are in need of course correction. Therefore, the agenda is not the seemingly impossible and even bad-tasting task of “repentance”, but rather an attainable goal of “teshuvah” “change” and “turn” in direction, redirection and focus.
At the core and heart of Judaism, revealed in Hebrew, are priorities that come alive in all facets of observance and practice: “Brit”, “Covenant”, partnership with God, through how you treat time and all manner of relationships; “Kedusha” “Holiness”, in making this moment special, memorable, and worth cherishing; and “Shalom” “Wholeness”, that everything and everyone is to fit together, in complementarity, in the puzzle of life (what “peace” looks like).
English has its words by which we communicate, but Hebrew draws pictures of how we are obligated to live.
Thus, the Yamim Noraim, ten days encompassing Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, are better translated as (not High Holy Days, for every day is to be Holy!) but Days of Awe. For changing direction and reprioritizing our lives, in alignment with Judaism, rooted in the Hebrew language, is an awesome life transforming decision to make, something we are invited, if not obligated to do, at this time, and all the time.
In preparing for the Days of Awe, it is critical that we not go through the motions, the rote of life, that we not say things that are not what we are committed to doing and living. To prepare diligently and effectively requires that we go through Cheshbon haNefesh, an “Accounting of our very Being, Soul, and Essence”, what and who deeply matters, why we are alive, and Whom we are here to serve…These are questions that come naturally in Hebrew. The ways that we engage them and respond to them can change our lives and the lives of those around us; and those are not just idle words or sermonic concepts; they are the reason we exist at all, at least according to the language of the Jewish people.
Ma Nora HaMakom Hazeh!
How Awesome is this Place (this context of God’s World and Presence and our Place in it)
With wishes to you all: for Shana Tova, good and healthy 5768, a year of change for the better and the best!