Throughout the high holiday season, we think a lot about judgment. It’s a heavy word, and also a word that brings to mind lots of possibilities. In the month of Elul, God is judging us to see what we have done in the past year and what will happen to us in the future. Knowing this we reflect and pass judgment on ourselves and, often, others.
I am going to borrow a phrase from Rachel Stern’s #BlogElul post and say: life is about perspective. She used this phrase to encourage people to see things as blessings. Here, I’d like to remind everyone that our judgments are also a matter of perspective.
When I tell people I work for a Jewish organization in Mississippi I occasionally get a response like, “there can’t be a lot of Jews there!”… and it’s true that there are not as many Jews here as there are in New York or Los Angeles. But I am sad when people say things like “It’s great that you are helping those Jews, they must really need it.”
I think this statement reflects a judgment, intentional or not, lacking in firsthand knowledge. It also reflects a judgment about what a Jewish community should look like, that it should look one certain way, when in fact there are lots of different ways to build a Jewish community. The Jewish communities that I visit have rich Jewish lives, they just might not look like the life we know in New York or Los Angeles.
“Those Jews” don’t need judgment. None of us do—but we can all use support.
I also have to be careful of my own judgments. I am a visitor in the communities I serve as an ISJL Education Fellow, and it is my job to empower educators. It is not my place to judge what a community’s priorities should be, how they should spend their resources, or which values they should hold most dear. And it is also not fair for me to judge them against any other community, Northern or Southern. Each congregation is its own special place.
Throughout this month of Elul, as I begin my fall visits and my second year as a Fellow unfolds, I will have to evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of the communities with which I work, so that I can help them plan for a successful year. As I do this I am being extra careful to evaluate, but not to judge. I want to help each community be the very best versions of themselves, whatever that might be; evaluating their needs will help guide me to what support will be most helpful.
So, too, as we celebrate Rosh Hashanah, should we strive not to judge, but rather to evaluate. To take a personal inventory of what worked for us and against us in the past year, and how we can—and what support we need.
Each congregation I work with deserves respect, evaluation, and support—not judgment; each of us deserves the same. We are all “those Jews” who “really need” that!
It’s that time of year. The holidays are on my mind, and in my heart.
The sound of the Shofar for me is a primal calling, something that touches my soul as a beautiful and startling awakening. Each year I feel astonished that I have not even noticed my own drift into semi-conscious life until I hear that shofar and my mind, body and soul suddenly come together to shake me to my core.
How does it happen each year to slowly and imperceptibly drift into semi consciousness? I am so “busy” with life, that during the year a protective barrier forms somewhere between my soul and my mind and body to insulate me from this fully awakened state.
If the barrier was not there, could I live and be productive doing mundane tasks in everyday life? What if I could block the barrier from growing back? Would I then be able to fully realize the holiness in every task that I do? Would that kind of holy awareness be too much for me to handle all the time?
If I was fully aware of holiness all the time, would I lose the awe of the awakening?
How does a woman who believes in the truth of the Torah and all its’ teachings without believing it all as “fact” get moved to tears at the sound of Tekiah Gadola as the metaphorical gates are closing at the very end of Neilah Service? How has it happened year in and year out for so many years and yet still….. it surprises me?
These are just a few of the questions that I am asking myself this High Holy Day season in preparation for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, when I will sit in the pews at my home synagogue in New Orleans and be awakened again by the call of the shofar as a new year begins.
What questions are on your mind as you reflect throughout this holy season?
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Today’s reflective post comes from Education Fellow Lex Rofes.
The end of summer can be a whirlwind for ISJL Education Fellows, as many of us spend the majority of our time traveling throughout the Southern region, getting to know Southern Jewish communities and preparing for the upcoming year of religious school. It is an incredibly exciting experience, and it has really energized us, in the weeks leading up to the High Holidays, and still, now – throughout the remaining autumn Jewish holidays. Wonderful as energy is, though, at times reflection is what we crave.
Thus, while in Houston with two other Education Fellows, we decided to take a couple minutes away from the excitement to engage in a little bit of meditation and self-reflection. Now, we could have done this just about anywhere – no specific venue is required to be introspective, nor are there any necessary supplies. But we had heard about a fascinating place called the Rothko Chapel, a multi-faith center for contemplation and prayer, and we decided it might be worth checking out.
We were not disappointed.
The Rothko Chapel is truly one-of-a-kind. As we walked into the lobby, the first thing we did was sign in to the Chapel’s guest book. Looking at earlier visitors, we saw people from all around the country. We proudly added our names, and our home base of Jackson, Mississippi, to this vast and varied list of places, and we headed towards the prayer space.
At its entrance, there were a number of books, humbly resting side by side. Some might not think much of this, but it certainly caused me to stop and think. Next to one another were traditional holy texts from Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Zoroastrianism, Christianity, and others. They were carefully placed side by side, with none taking precedence over the others. Implicit to me was the idea that none of them was “more correct” or “truer” than the others. This table made me stop in awe, because on it lay eight or nine texts that are, together, the basis for thousands and thousands of years of tradition, all over the world. There they were, quiet and ancient, for all to explore, analyze, study, or question.
What struck me about these books even more was that they were very well-worn. Where the covers might once have been shiny, they were now a little bit duller. Some of the pages were a little yellowed, and maybe even torn a little bit. I thought about this not because it makes the texts any less beautiful. On the contrary, I think it adds a great deal to them. There is something unbelievably tragic about a brand new book, impeccably shiny, being placed on a shelf only to go unused for years and years. These, however, through daily exploration by visitors from around the country and the world, have given new wisdom and growth to countless people. They have earned their scratches.
Next, we went into the chapel itself. There were only a couple of others inside as we entered, but we spread out to a few different corners of the octagonal room. There were benches in the center, mats for those who wanted to sit on the floor, and, most interestingly, fourteen black paintings on the walls. The paintings set the tone for a space that felt incredibly spiritual. I sat there for a while, my mind wandering from the texts in the lobby to how I might best do teshuvah (repentance) over the High Holidays, and eventually, to nothing. I sat there and thought about nothing for the first time in almost forever.
After awhile, the other Fellows and I got up to go. We rose at precisely the same moment, without speaking or gesturing, despite the fact that we had been facing in different directions and did not know exactly where the others were.
Visiting this chapel was an unbelievable experience. Through the texts, I saw quite literally what it looks like when Judaism exists peacefully, side by side, with other world religions. It reminded me of the delicate balancing act we engage in as we attempt to maintain a level of Jewish distinctiveness while simultaneously playing a role in the betterment of the world more generally. As we walked out of the building, I returned to my work for the ISJL, an organization adeptly and simultaneously carrying out both of those missions.
L’shanah tovah, y’all.