Jewish high holidays: A time for reflection, forgiveness

Yom Kippur, the faith’s holiest day of the year, starts at sundown today.

Looking in the mirror during the Jewish High Holy Days isn’t just about checking your makeup or hair style before heading for a synagogue prayer service.

It’s about taking a much deeper look inside, searching those inner thoughts and feelings that a mirror won’t reveal.

This 10-day period, known as the Days of Awe, began this year on Friday evening, Sept. 15 with Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, begins at sunset today and will end Monday, Sept. 25 at sundown.

The idea is to reflect on the past year and to seek forgiveness — both from others and from God.

“At their core, the high holidays are about starting the new Jewish year with a clean slate and the only way to do that is by cleaning up anything you need to clean up from the previous year,” says Archie Gottesman, co-founder of Her online platform is an entertaining and educational resource for folks who would like to learn more about Judaism.

Gottesman says a lot of the messes people create in their lives are with people they love — friends and family. “There is a beautiful Jewish tradition where we go to people and say: ‘Listen, I sometimes talk before I think and I value our friendship and want to apologize if I did or said anything this year that hurt you.’”

Sometimes it’s more specific: “Hey, remember that time I couldn’t come to dinner and you planned around it? I’m really sorry.”

She says forgiveness is a powerful tool and a two-way street. “Hopefully, the other person’s response will be ‘we’re good and I apologize for anything that I might have done that injured you.’” What if they don’t accept the apology? According to Jewish tradition, says Gottesman, if you apologize three times to someone and you really mean it, you’ve done your best to make amends. You don’t have to keep apologizing.

Rosh Hashanah, Gottesman adds, is a people-to-people thing. “On Yom Kippur, it’s more about your relationship to God. Maybe you don’t feel like you were a good person this year and didn’t live up to who you want to be.”

Making it right

Rabbi Judy Chessin of Temple Beth Or in Washington Twp. says the idea is to go into a new year with fewer burdens, without carrying guilt, regret or bitterness. “What’s different this year is that we are in a time of incredible vitriol‚” she notes. “We’ve figured out what we don’t agree with but haven’t learned how to make space to forgive someone who might have a different view of things. Being angry and polarized is causing a lot of pain and it’s not good for anyone.”

Chessin says you are supposed to repair and make restitution for whatever you did, and then vow not to do it again. For example, if you stole a cow, you can’t just give the person another cow; you have to take into consideration the lost income from the milk that cow could have produced. To make up for that, you might give the other person a cow and a calf. You have to go above and beyond to make it right.

“If you’re an alcoholic who gets drunk and abuses the family, you can’t just say ‘I’m sorry’ and buy your battered spouse a new iPhone,” she says. “You also need to keep yourself out of the danger zone and stay away from alcohol. If I’m cheating on my partner by flirting online with a previous flame, I need to apologize and make a plan to give that intimacy to my committed partner instead of the cool, sexy partner online. Then cut the cord!”

The same process, Chessin says, applies to a burden we carry personally. “If I’m shopping too much online or cutting myself, only God and I can take that on.”

To symbolize the sins we’d like to wash away, there’s a Rosh Hashanah tradition known as “tashlick.” It’s traditionally done by throwing bread crumbs into flowing water: a river, a lake. “Some people don’t like it ecologically because bread isn’t good for fish, so this year our congregants went to a flower field instead,” Chessin says. “People picked a flower and sent the petals out into the air.”

Credit: Stephen Goldberg

Credit: Stephen Goldberg

Forgiveness isn’t always easy

Rabbi Bernard Barsky, a licensed professional clinical counselor who practices at Family Services Association in Moraine, frequently brings up the idea of forgiveness, often in relation to parents.

“In some cases, the parent has been physically or sexually abusive,” he explains. “In some cases, the parent has been physically or emotionally absent. Sometimes a parent has been emotionally cold or hypocritical. The parent was an alcoholic, drug addict or had a mental disorder.”

The parent may be dead or still living. “In most cases there has never been an apology from the parent,” Barsky says. “So there isn’t going to be any relationship counseling or couple’s counseling here; the work is entirely one-sided. The client is left to work out the emotional trauma on his/her own.”

The first step for a counselor, he says, is to let the client be heard, and to show empathy, to acknowledge that the injury is real and the pain is justified. “But then I will help the client try to find some fuller understanding of who that parent was before he or she became a parent. Almost invariably that parent was also an abused child. The basic tactic of forgiveness is to remove yourself from the center of the story: to consider the injuring person as him/herself injured, just like you; to consider that person’s state or situation at the time of the offense; to understand why he acted as he did. Strangely, forgiveness, even if one-sided, heals the toxic relationship. It dissolves anger and surrounds the injurer with compassion. He looks different to me now. He looks more like me. "

Catch and release

Before beginning his Rosh Hashanah sermon, Rabbi Aubrey Glazer of Beth Abraham Synagogue in Oakwood held up a long fly-fishing rod.

“I grew up fly-fishing long before I entered seminary to become a rabbi,” he explained to his congregation. “My dad taught me there is a distinction in the angler’s world between bait-catching and fly-fishing.”

Judaism, he said, forbids hunting for pleasure. “Fishing for sport and killing the fish is not kosher,” he explained. “You can hunt only for the purpose of eating. What my dad taught me is to come to the habitat with respect, try to preserve the ecosphere. Once you catch the fish with a barbless hook, take a photo, appreciate the moment, and carefully remove the hook and return to the water.”

The life lesson? No matter how much time and energy we invest in holding onto things in life, the wisest thing we can do is to release it. “In a bad moment we are snared into the mindset of seeing ourselves as victims, and that makes it difficult to move forward,” Glazer says. “By holding a grudge and not forgiving someone, we have caught something but not released it. The bad experience takes up space in your emotional mind, space that would be better used for storing and experiencing joy. And from this place, we cannot live in the here and now.”

Credit: Stephen Goldberg

Credit: Stephen Goldberg

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