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September 28, 2008: “Rosh Hashanah – 10 Days of Examining Your Life”

This comes from one of the many sources from a course on Judaism I took back in the 1980s from a reform Rabbi; I have lost the original source, but find wonderful universal wisdom that I want to share. Remember that we glean wisdom from the world’s religions, interpreting their language. Judaism itself is based on interpretation, even more so than Christianity. When great ancient Rabbi Hillel is said to have responded when asked to teach the Torah while standing on one foot in other words, what’s the most important thing about the torah, he answered. Do not do to others that which is hateful to yourself. All the rest is commentary. Now, go and study.

    Almost as sacred as Torah is the Talmud, the Rabbis interpretation of scripture and teaching over the centuries;  It is  said that the rabbi-teachers took the Judaism of the Prophets and "brought it to bear upon the lives of the people in a way and to an extant which the prophets had never been able to accomplish."

    "It is not far from the truth to say that if it had not been for the rabbis, the prophets might have been forgotten. The reason that the Talmud grew as it did was the work of Rabbis, generation after generation, to try to adapt the Law, the Torah, to new problems and the transformed realities which Jews faced-in captivity or in freedom, as rulers or ruled, as men and women and parents, or as subjects of the Roman or Catholic sovereigns, Muslim Spain, or the brutal hegemony of the tsars." Leo Rosten Chapter 15 Jewish Holidays

    Judaism's special message is that the Force that is celebrated in all religions as the One that creates and sustains the universe. No wonder then, that Jewish holidays focus on celebrating both aspects of God: the Divine as revealed through nature, and the Divine as revealed through history; God as the Creator, and God as the Power of healing and repair.

Rosh Hashanah, Days of Awe, and Yom Kippur … Built into the High Holy Days is a deep psychological wisdom that can and should be reclaimed. In the 10 days of repentance that extend from the first day of the Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashanah, through the Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur, we may engage in a mass psychological process, as we participate in an individual and collective reassessment of our lives.

    Remembering is step one-looking at what we have done and what we have become during the past year. Rosh Hashanah is called Yom Hazikaron, the Day of Remembrance.

    The second step is to measure what we have done and what we have become against our own highest visions of who we should and could be. This step is facilitated when we collectively, through prayer, reaffirm the vision of our possibilities (what we could be individually and together).

    The third step is called teshuvah , or repentance. This does not mean merely a commitment to good values that are so abstract that they function only to make us feel good when we espouse them. Real teshuvah means determining in considerable detail exactly what we are going to do differently in our lives....Teshuvah is not a series of New Year's resolutions, but is instead a plan of action based on the deepest and most searching self-scrutiny....This period is really about something else: a fundamental transformation of self and community.

    ...From the Jewish tradition, human beings are fundamentally social-we are part of one another's realities, part of the human relationships in which we are engaged. So we do say in our prayers, I have sinned, but rather, We have sinned. We are responsible for one another, and the level of our own transcendence always depends on the degree to which we as a community can actualize our common humanity, our capacity to be embodiments of Gods energy in the world. Only by establishing a set of human relationships between all people will I as an individual be able to realize fully my deepest possible human potentialities...

    A community that integrates this kind of deep self-exploration with an equally serious focus on communal or societal change generates a tremendous spiritual energy.  As someone has said: "God may forgive your sins but your nervous system won't." (Alfred Korzbski)

    According to David Loy,  a student of  psychiatrist, Otto Rank, who himself was a student of Freud:   "contemporary humanity is neurotic because we suffer from a consciousness of sin just as much as the pre-modern human did, but without believing in the religious conception of sin, which leaves us without a means of expiation. In the rituals of archaic humanity,  a sense of indebtedness was balanced by the belief that the debt could be repaid; today we are oppressed by the realization that the burden of guilt is unpayable.-The Journal of Transpersonal Psychology, article: Avoiding the Void; The lack of self in Psycho therapy and Buddhism

Let us be in the spirit of worship.


    The Jewish "High Holy Days"  are often called the Ten Days of Repentance or Ten Days of Awe that begin with Rosh Hashanah and end with Yom Kippur, the Jewish New year; they  are meant to be a time to examine one's life and to ask forgiveness for ones sins. And let's quickly define sin here for us and our purpose as mistake, hurtful behavior, or from the Greek, it really means, missing the mark. Let's not put religious rules and regulations onto it for now.  I want to look at these holidays in two ways then, to give you a Jewish perspective on them and then to interpret them in a way that might help us learn and benefit from them. I don't mean to culturally misappropriate them, but to glean wisdom from them and hopefully, honor them and their wisdom, reinterpreting them for us today. All religion has psychological insight or underpinnings, as if God had had a Ph.D. in Clinical Psych as well Comparative Religion, Anthropology, Quantum Physics, and Astronomy. 

      I think it very interesting that Jews believe that there are two kinds of sin,(neither of them original, by the way) the usual ones that were familiar with  against God, but the other is against humans, usually loved ones! Therefore, the sins against loved ones, friends, etc. can only be forgiven by them, not God, and during these holy days we must ask them forgiveness!   On the first day, God opens the Book of Life where all your sins are written and on the 10th day, God will close it, so you've only got 10 days to "atone" or ask forgiveness for your sins of the last year! Wouldn't this be a practical holiday for the world? A time of self examination, a time of true repentance, especially to those whom we have wronged or hurt in some way.

     There is the story about a synagogue looking for a rabbi. The chairman of the committee directed the official request to the Rabbinical Placement Commission for a rabbi with this impressive profile:  We want someone who is a compelling speaker, a compassionate pastor, a prodigious scholar, a sound administrator, and a stimulating teacher; one who is firm, yet gentle; and one who can relate effectively to young and old alike.

    The director of the Placement Commission sent back this response:  The Messiah hasn't arrived yet.  In the meantime, we are sending you Rabbi Ginsberg.

    These two most high Jewish holidays, Rosh Hashanah the new year celebration, also called, the birthday of the world, which  leads into the ten days of awe, remembrance, reflection,  or repentance, and culminate in the holiest day of the year, a fast day, Yom Kippur, the day of Atonement, or as some have pronounced it at-one-ment. -the judgment day.

     Interestingly, Jews don't emphasize Hell, nor do they teach original sin, though both Christians and Jews share the same story of Adam and Eve, but draw different conclusions. In our tradition we have also done away with the idea of Hell as a place where we go in eternal torment. Most of us believe in neither heaven nor hell. In fact, it has been asked, What is a dead Unitarian Universalist? Someone who is all dressed up with no place to go.

     There is an old Jewish saying that says that we don't have to repent until the day before we die, but since we don't know when we're going to die, God gave us Yom Kippur. The high holy days of 10 days of repentance or the "Ten days of Turning", or the "Days of Awe," as we think about our religious journey of life, and how we have treated both the human and the divine. That the Book of Life  with our name on it is a kind  kind of a "religious This is your Life" and it is difficult for us with a Christmas culture, not to think of Santa's list of boys and girls who have been naughty or nice.

    It was an old Jewish custom that on the eve of Yom Kippur, to quickly go to everyone whom they had offended or not been very friendly to or honest with, and ask their forgiveness; secondly, families would come together to ask forgiveness of one another for any wrongs they might have done to each other throughout the last year, so they might come to Yom Kippur with a clean conscience. Wouldn't it be nice if even Christmas could be made more relevant by having this kind of forgiveness ritual in families, especially among families who have hurt each other during the year!

    On Yom Kippur, observing Jews confess their sins collectively - for on that awesome day, say the pious, all people stand before God's Judgment. The confession, which is repeated several times during the day, involves a cataloguing of no fewer than 56 categories of sin and the saying of this prayer: "For the Sin we have committed before Thee by (stating one of the 56 varieties) oh, God of Forgiveness, forgive us, pardon us, grant us remission." The confession of guilt is recited as a collective 'We,' not as an individual 'I' because on Yom Kippur, Jews 'share' one another's sins or transgressions- as well as a feeling of general responsibility for all people.

    Usually as rational Unitarian Universalists, we don't talk much about sin. We rarely hear a sermon on being penitent and humble. Indeed, it is hard for us to be humble because we are so enlightened, so intelligent, so, well...LIBERAL! It is like the story of the three people at the entrance to the gates of hell. The first is a rabbi who confesses that he ate pork, the second a priest who had not kept the vow of chastity, and the third was a Unitarian Universalist. The other two looked at the third and realizing how liberal we are asked what this person could have possibly done to deserve hell. "I used the wrong fork," was the reply.

    What about us religious liberals? We don't talk about sin and salvation much, in fact, we say we are turned off by that kind of language. One of my first sermons on the Jewish Holy Days was titled "THE 'NOT-ME MONSTER': NO CONFESSION WITHOUT A LAWYER PRESENT."  This is where the "Not-Me Monster" comes in. If you have read the comic strip, "Family Circus", or if you have children you are no doubt familiar with the symbolic person who is responsible for the putting back the empty milk carton or perhaps laundering the cat. When you ask, "who did this?" The answer is always, "Not me!" We don't believe in confession, at least not without a lawyer present. Yet we often mentally self-flagellate ourselves for our failures, real or imagined.

    Sin," says novelist D.H. Lawrence," is a queer thing. It isn't the breaking of divine commandments. It is the breaking of one's own integrity."

    My colleague, Marilyn Sewell defines sin simply as being a jerk. Someone else, just as simply, self-inflicted-nonsense.

    The modern religion called psychology agrees. Freud said that humans were blessed or cursed with a super-ego and ideal-ideal which constantly makes us aware on one level or another, and whether we like it or not, that we always fall short of our own expectations, say nothing about our parent's and society's expectations of us.  Now we might question whether Freud had some well. Freudian hang-ups about his father in his seemingly obsessive hatred with religion. Guilt perhaps? an overbearing mother? Authority issues with an stern father figure?  He certainly wasn't able to see that his psychological system sounded very much like a religion to some, and that it satisfied some of the same needs!

    In the various 12-step recovery programs, perhaps one of the most successful blend of psychology and religion that has been developed in recent times that hasn't been exploited and commercialized, has important steps that could also be called stages of faith.  One of those, especially related to religion, in a universal way, is to admit being helpless and letting go "to a higher power", however one wants to define that. Another step is to confess and ask forgiveness of those whom we have wronged. It is the asking that is the important element, even more important than whether you are forgiven, because you don't have control over that. You only have control over your willingness to humble yourself, hence your asking forgiveness is a spiritual act, just as your granting forgiveness to another is. 

    The "Not-Me Monster" in liberal religion is our pride that we don't need a supernatural father-figure named God, that we can do everything ourselves. I submit that what we need to do is to find the balance. Sometimes we carry guilt because we can't quit smoking (that was me for many) or lose weight Also me for many years.  Or express our emotions or a thousand other shortcomings that we humans carry around with us. We do believe in sin, but call it by different names. We need confession as well to unburden ourselves.

    But to whom do we confess, and what sins? Being a non-creedal religion, we have the freedom, indeed the responsibility to answer those questions for ourselves. Perhaps we need to confess to our spouse, if we are married, or perhaps to ourselves. Perhaps we need to check our pride at the door and kneel in humility to the Great Spirit of the universe of which we are a part.

    You know, I was thinking of having us all kneel, as a kind of ritual of confession, and realized how that would probably go over. For some, it would bring back unpleasant memories of traditional religion. For others, it might make us uncomfortable or perhaps too conforming. Yet I think we need to be able to at least mentally kneel and yes, confess our sins, however we choose in our individual religious pilgrimage.

    Can you imagine an entire UU congregation kneeling? I can't. Maybe it would be a good idea. No don't worry. I'm not going to test this particular strange theory of mine, but someone once said that the reason religion isn't as spiritual as it used to be is that no one is willing to bow as low as they used to, and I think what was meant was a kind of spiritual humility balanced with rationality. There are many who give up, in my humble opinion, all of their rational thinking in their bowing down to their religious belief/doctrine, etc., and follow their religious leaders blindly, since, of course, their idea of God, can only be interpreted though those leaders.

    Sometimes, I am concerned that we have taken the exact opposite tact and have thrown out the spiritual baby with the doctrinal bath water. We sometimes harbor guilt because we have no way of truly confessing and then knowing that we are forgiven as, say, a catholic who believes the priest when after attending confession is told what they must do to gain forgiveness. Something nice and concrete. Something doable, and well, fairly, easy. Growing up Protestant, I was always a little envious. We wouldn't really find out if we were forgiven our sins until we died and then it would be a little late, wouldn't it!

    Forrester Church, Our minister of All Souls Church in New York City-writes in his book, The Seven Deadly Virtues:: The Latin root from which our word salvation stems means good health. Our Teutonic word whole, holy, hale, and health are intimately related as well. And Salaam/Shalom, meaning peace, stems from the Semitic root meaning whole. Wholeness is peace, and salvation is health. Sin, on the other hand, is the condition of fragmentation, alienation, estrangement, and brokenness.

    My good friend Rabbi Sam Stahl,  was Sr. rabbi of Temple Beth-El  in San Antonio had  written a book entitled Making the Timeless Timely, and he talks about these holidays: "It is important for us, as we reviewed a year of grievous sins and unfulfilled goals, to do more than just say words of remorse. We must also induce the pain of deprivation. In Judaism, this phenomenon is called "inui hanesh- Torture of the soul.

    Isn't that what guilt is?  What happens when we hold grudges? Do we not torture our soul over our misdeed as well as others misdeeds real or imagined unto us? Sometimes we must forgive ourselves before we can truly forgive others. Our souls may indeed feel tortured until we forgive and are forgiven.

    Rabbi Stahl quotes someone he calls a "wise author: "Our life is brief and finite. Why allow it to become a collection of hurts and grudges?...In the very depths of your soul, dig a grave. Let it be as some forgotten spot to which no path leads: And there in the eternal silence, bury the wrongs which you have suffered. Your heart will feel as if a load has fallen from it."

    An email story from National Friendship Week sent to me by a member: There once was a little boy who had a bad temper.  His Father gave him a bag of nails and told him that every time he lost his temper, he must hammer a nail into the back of the fence.  The first day the boy had driven 37 nails into the fence. Over the next few weeks, as he learned to control his anger, the number of nails hammered daily gradually dwindled down.  He discovered it was easier to hold his temper than to drive those nails into the fence.  Finally the day came when the boy didn't lose his temper at all. He told his father about it and the father suggested that the boy now pull out one nail for each day that he was able to hold his temper.  The days passed and the young boy was finally able to tell his father that all the nails were gone.

    The father took his son by the hand and led him to the fence.  He said, "You have done well, my son, but look at the holes in the fence".  The fence will never be the same.

    When you say things in anger, they leave a scar just like this one.  You can put a knife in a man and draw it out.  It won't matter how many times you say I'm sorry, the wound is still there."  A verbal wound is as bad as a physical one.  Friends are very rare jewels, indeed.  They make you smile and encourage you to succeed.  They lend an ear, they share words of praise and they always want to open their hearts to us."

    Then we are suggested to add, and so I do Please forgive me if I have ever left a hole in your fence.

    The Jewish concept of Judgment day is different from the traditional Christian one; in Judaism Judgment day comes every year as long as we live during these holidays, but we must repent before we die, and since we never know when we will die and not have time to repent, to ask and to give forgiveness, we should do it now!

    We write our own book of life, a universal book of life, but we are also characters in others books of life, just as we have Characters in ours. A kind of cosmic novel about good and, well not evil, but good and not so good. Good and bad.

    The Jewish High Holy Days have an annual review, if you will of your life, a yearly life audit, a judgment day every year! How did you do this year with your relationships with your family, with your deeper self? with your sense of the Holy? With life? How do we judge ourselves? How do we judge success or failures, How do we know when we have sinned? And, during these trying economic times, I want to broaden this concept of sin, because Judaism does as well to include the wider community.

    In his book, Jewish renewal: A Path to Healing and Transformation, Rabbi Michael Lerner, makes deeply inspirational and hopeful sense. He is the founder and editor of the progressive Jewish social justice magazine Tikkun Magazine a bimonthly Jewish Critique of politics, culture and society. He holds Ph.D.s in philosophy and clinical psychology and is held in high regard by social activists, progressives, and speaks frequently at UU Conferences. What I began to notice was that where he would use the term Jewish, I would substitute the word, religious. Why? Because his words made universal sense, not just sense for Jews.  For Jewish renewal, Lerner writes, the spirituality that fills the world is intrinsically connected to a moral critique of existing economic arrangements. Jewish renewal will not accept a world in which some people live in luxury and affluence while others are starving or homeless, a world in which people learn to close their ears and eyes to the pain of the physically and emotionally abused, a world that makes it common sense to look out for number one, while ignoring the needs of others. Spirituality divorced from real political struggles to fundamentally change the world is necessarily one dimensional, shallow, and not what we have in mind when we talk about the holy. Individual or communal acts of charity, fundraising for victims, and even caring for others are important-but not enough, unless linked to a more deeply transformative program aimed at changing the underlying economic and political institutions that cause the problems.

    Not just our behavior over the past year is considered during these days of reflection, repentance, or resouling, but the behavior of which we are a part as citizens of the world. Indeed, even how we invest our money, what kind of work we do, how we treat the environment, the poor, the working lower class one shaky step above the poor, the working middle class, maybe two or three shaky steps above, and so on. Some of the people taking golden parachutes need to be brought before the day of judgment, my friends, and found immoral! I believe that these economic problems are caused by people who did NOT take the community into consideration in what I call Compassionate capitalism but went for the short term profit, and what I would consider callous capitalism eventually hurting the community so deeply that we ended up in this mess. One could easily call it robbery from the poor to give to the Wall Street investor! A lot of repentance is called for !

    On Yom Kippur comes the day of Atonement, to make up for, to pay for, to atone for, but as I've said, we can also pronounce it as at-one-ment, that seeing sin as separateness from God or life or one another, and enlightenment as realizing that we are all one. Yom Kippur is a Fast Day, yet like many traditions, it is often just rotely followed because it is tradition, so   Jewish writer, William Arthur Ward, like the ancient prophets, warns us that just following tradition of fasting on Yom Kippur is not religion and transforms the meaning of fasting as metaphors of spiritual development in these stirring words:

Fast from words that pollute: feast on phrases that purify.
Fast from discontent: feast on gratitude.
Fast from anger: feast on patience.
Fast from pessimism: feast on optimism.
Fast from complaining: feast on affirmatives.
Fast from bitterness: feast on forgiveness.
Fast from self-concern: feast on compassion for others.
Fast from discouragement: feast on hope.
Fast from lethargy: feast on enthusiasm.
Fast from suspicion: feast on truth.
Fast from thoughts that weaken: feast on promises that inspire.
Fast from shadows of sorrow: feast on the sunlight of serenity…

    Let these be days of awe for us as well, a time to reflect, to repent, a time to forgive, as well as  a time to ask for forgiveness.    Let us find our way to connect to one another, to the world, to that which is most holy and meaningful for us. Let us let go of all grudges against others or even ourselves, be freed from the self- constructed prison of guilt this day, but not the responsibility of doing better.  Let us let the ego of selfishness go as well. Let us leave here lighter, happier, and wholier, spelled, w-h-o-l-i-e-r,  a new word made up this day. Let us go forth in love and compassion for ourselves, each other and the world.

Amen, Shalom, (Peace in Hebrew), Assalaamu Alaikum(may Peace be upon you in Arabic), Abrazos a todos (Hugs all around) Namaste, (A Hindu greeting the divinity within you) Blessed Be, and let me add one more blessing that I adapted from the Spanish long before I went in to ministry. Vaya con Dios is Spanish for Good-bye, but literally is Go with God, SO I adapted it to say Vaya Con Su Dios, Go with your idea or interpretation of God.