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Finding Sweetness Beyond The Holidays
By Josh Altshuler, ISJL Education Fellow
The holidays are coming: that time of year when Jewish families feel pressured into eating alarmingly dense honey cake, squeezing into formal clothing and dressy shoes, and preparing for another full-day fast. Moreover, the Days of Atonement represent the holiest days of the Jewish calendar and the daunting task of personal reflection. The strain and discomfort that can characterize Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur do not reinforce an abundant sense of merriment. Unlike other festivals like Purim and Chanukah, which often consist of revelry and a light atmosphere, the High Holidays are much heavier. After all, the Book of Life will be both opened and closed, and Jewish people everywhere engage with their individual and communal transgressions.
Despite the seriousness of the holidays, the arrival of the New Year marks an uplifting and thoroughly meaningful period in the Jewish community. Friends and family from near and far experience the highest levels of togetherness on these days of prayer and tradition. Each Rosh Hashanah, Jews dip apples into honey to greet the sweetness of a new year. This ritual, however, is not merely palatable. By eating this festive combination and listening to the sound of the shofar, Jews share in many of the same sensory celebrations—observing as one community regardless of location. This year, take a moment to look outside of the mach’zor (High Holiday prayer book) during a service and appreciate the range of faces that fill the sanctuary. The Days of Awe congregate a collective Jewish people, a powerful background for renewing connections and seeking growth.
The poem Un’taneh Tokef recites, “On Rosh Hashanah is written, and on Yom Kippur it is sealed.” These words can sound overwhelming as they intensify the sanctity of the Days of Atonement. Yet, Jews do not need to interpret this line as an ultimatum. The holidays offer us an opportunity to slow down in an otherwise chaotic daily schedule. As a result of travel, work, education, and other interests there is almost never a time in the year dedicated to advancing personal and group wellness. The arrival of Rosh Hashanah reveals a new book, a chance for us to take stock of our lives. Over the course of the holiday, Jewish people assess behaviors, causes, and relationships that convey significant value. In the subsequent days that culminate in Yom Kippur, there is also an imperative to consider mistakes and complicity towards injustice. The ability to evaluate both treasures and missteps on the High Holy Days ensures that our present continues to be founded through intention. The conclusion of Yom Kippur seals the passions and considerations brought into the holiday season as a starting point for the rest of the year. The Jewish people then can move forward with the knowledge and resolution to make good in the world and act in God’s will.
Approaching the holidays does not need to be a stress-inducing affair. Instead, teachers, students, and parents can look towards these occasions as moments to sense a love of community and the power of reflection. May this be a year graced by joyful smiles and a profound enthusiasm towards exploring and enhancing identity.
Shanah Tovah (A Good Year)!