Tuesday, September 25, 2012

In Whose Hands?
What Golden Tate, M.D. Jennings, and the Replacement Refs can teach us about the New Year

I'd like begin by expressing my sincere gratitude for the support and positive feedback that I've received in response to my last post. Looking back at the past month, my experience that day was more formative than I initially realized -- and I think much of what I've made of the ordeal is informed by your reactions. While I do not actively think much about the ride, I find myself more independent than before and somewhat emboldened in the decisions that I make.

It is an auspicious time for me to be making bold choices. The Jewish High Holidays are a period of self-reflection and repentance. The hours spent in synagogue are supplemented by rituals, both talismanic and palpable, designed to bring about a truly happy and sweet new year. In many ways, the roster of ritual activities can be compared to the Passover Seder table. The Haggadah directs us to look at the Matza (unleavened bread), Maror (bitter herbs), and roasted shankbone as vehicles enabling us to relive the exodus from Egypt. We dip a leafy green in salt water to represent both the emergence of Spring and to taste the tears that were a natural outcome of slavery. There is a custom among some Jews to walk around the table and "whip" one another with onions as a reminder that we were freed from the "lash" of oppression. Nearly the entire evening is spent playacting as a means of tangibly appreciating the transition from bondage to freedom. Something similar can be said of the High Holiday period. Dipping apples in honey, eating pomegranate seeds, and displaying a fish head on the holiday table are sensory activities engendering our desire for a successful year ahead. Casting bits of bread into a body of water and transferring our transgressions onto live chickens, or coins for the squeamish, are ceremonial acts that go beyond the tangible and incorporate the ethereal nature of the Days of Awe.

The tangible and intangible rituals that constitute the season are excellent expressions of the dual nature of the High Holidays -- and Judaism in general. When I perform Tashlich, the aforementioned casting away of bread meant to represent my sins, I use one bit of bread as a token of the sins I've committed against my fellow man and one bit for those transgressions against God. On the Day of Atonement, we must be absolved of both. If we look to the liturgy, we see that our fate results as much from our actions as it does not. We ask that God favor our good deeds over our bad, but we also ask not to be judged by our deeds at all. During the holy Kol Nidrei prayer, and the Hatarat Nedarim (annulment of vows) that often precedes it, we proclaim our actions in the previous year to be meaningless. We ask that God not take us at our word and that we become a blank slate impervious to indictment. We ask God to remember, and in turn remind ourselves, that our origin is dust and our destiny the same. We place ourselves at His mercy -- not instruments of our own fate, but children reliant on the support of a benevolent parent. Weary travelers in need of a kindly guide to light the way.

As I embark on the new year, I am both heartened and frightened by this binary reality. My journey in France cemented my understanding that while only so much is in our own hands, our decisions do change things -- even if only in our own minds. If, in our actions, we determine to make this year a sweet one (for ourselves and those around us), we may just taste the sweetness ourselves. Just as the bread of affliction allows us to taste a morsel of slavery, our challah with honey ushers us closer to the year we might have if we sweeten our days with kindness and laughter and the closeness of family and friends. And, who knows, our own acts of kindness might be the serendipitous moments that make someone else realize that try as we might, and we should, some outcomes are far beyond our grasp.

Wishing you and yours a safe, meaningful, and successful fast, a Gmar v'Chatima Tova, and a truly happy and sweet new year.

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