Here in Pico-Robertson, many of us approach the month of Tishrei with a certain amount of ambivalence, if not culinary dread. Especially this year, when the holiday meals are back to back with Shabbat, we are bracing ourselves for 30 days with — I’m not kidding — at least 20 Thanksgiving-level meals, if you include the High Holy Days, the first and second holidays of Sukkot (eight meals right there) and the weekly Shabbat feasts.
That’s a lot of guest coordination, shmoozing and baba ganoush.
Meanwhile, the rabbis will be imploring us to embark on a deep and personal spiritual trek that would lead to things like personal transformation, clinging closer to God and returning to our better selves. The bigger question they might ask is: How will the ingestion of 50,000 calories a week amid a freight train of festive meals contribute to this spiritual journey?
I don’t have an answer, but I have an idea: maybe we ought to find a two- or three-word mantra that summarizes what these High Holy Days mean to us and use this mantra as a handy guide to help us navigate the many distractions we are sure to encounter.
I wrote my own mantra after hearing from three rabbis over the past week: Rabbi Donniel Hartman of the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem; Rabbi Chaim Seidler-Feller of UCLA Hillel; and Rabbi Kalman Topp of Beth Jacob Congregation.
So what’s my mantra for this holiday season? Aim higher.
“Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are not primarily about atonement, about being forgiven for our sins and indiscretions,” Rabbi Hartman wrote. “While originally in the Bible this was the primary intent, the revolution of the rabbinic tradition was to shift the focus from attaining atonement from God to the human responsibility to repent and change our behavior. It is not about God’s love and acceptance of the sinner, but rather God’s expectation that humankind overcome sin and live up to our tradition’s expectation.”
Hartman goes on: “To assume one’s righteousness and concentrate one’s efforts on pointing out the failures of others is again to ignore the principle of teshuvah and its spirit on which our tradition is founded.”
In other words, it’s easy to be humble and ask God for forgiveness, or to focus on criticizing others, but it’s a lot harder to ask yourself how you will change your behavior and become a better person. You have to handle the blows to your ego of admitting how often you messed up during the past year, and then you have to commit to the hard work of actually becoming a better person.
But what kind of better person?
“Avoiding transgressions is not enough,” Rabbi Seidler-Feller said in his holiday message. Quoting Maimonides, he spoke about the importance of going beyond “simply avoiding sins like sexual transgressions and stealing.”
It’s all about character, the rabbi says. Controlling one’s anger. Never humiliating others. Avoiding the pursuit of honor. Not coveting the success of others. Those are all issues of character, and they’re much tougher to work on than the avoidance of basic sins. Rosh Hashanah is a holiday that reminds us that the act of refining one’s character is never complete, that it represents “the very act of living.”
And where do we find the strength to aim so high, to do such difficult work?
According to Rabbi Topp, Rosh Hashanah also reminds us that because we are created in the image of God, we already have this strength inside of us — we just have to tap into it. That was his message last Sunday morning at a pre-Rosh Hashanah breakfast at Beth Jacob.
The rabbi took us through the four key insertions to the Amidah prayer during the High Holy Days and showed us how with each insertion, we keep asking God for more. It’s not a coincidence that at each level our identity gets stronger and stronger: We start by being anonymous, then we are “God’s creatures,” then we are “members of the covenant at Sinai,” and, finally, we are the “Nation of Israel,” with all the privileges and duties that go with it.
It’s at that final level that Rabbi Topp spoke about our “built-in specialness,” the idea that whatever personal improvement we are seeking, God has already given us the strength to “return” to it — to return to our better selves.
(On that note, one of the most effective ways I have found to rebuke my kids when they do something wrong is simply to say to them, “You’re better than that,” even when I’m not sure I mean it.)
So that will be my mantra during these High Holy Days — aim higher. As I go through the Days of Judgment, the Days of Awe, the Days of Harvest and the Days of Too Many Stuffed Zucchinis, I will try to keep my eye on the spiritual ball: Don’t focus on just seeking forgiveness or not criticizing others; don’t settle for just avoiding sins; do the hard work of refining my character and remember that God is there to give me strength on my journey.
And if I fail to reach that high, and the baba ganoush and single malts get the better of me, well, at least I will have had a really good time.