Making the High Holidays meaningful year after year
In education, there is a concept called ‘spiral curriculum.’ The idea is that students return to ideas they have previously encountered, creating opportunities to build on their prior knowledge in order to gain deeper, or more nuanced, knowledge with each revisiting of a concept.
While some may feel like they are going in circles, they are in fact coming back to familiar ideas, but with a new vantage point based on their own growth as students and the familiarity of previous engagement with a topic.
I’ve always felt that the Jewish calendar is the perfect example of such a curriculum. Each year, sometime as summer fades into fall, we are confronted with the questions and reflections of starting a new year and an opportunity to shed ourselves of the spiritual plaque that has been building since we last celebrated Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, The High Holy Days.
If one goes to synagogue during these days, they will find that the language in the prayer book is one of reflection and renewal. We ask ourselves the same questions, we read the same confessions and we commit ourselves to the same assertions to do better. And while in certain ways we might argue that every year it is the same old thing, one thing is always different: where we are in our own lives and spiritual journeys.
Perhaps since last Rosh Hashanah I have been confronted with some challenges where I came up short. Perhaps, as a community, we have had to consider questions about acts of justice and compassion. Perhaps since last Rosh Hashanah we have lost a beloved member of our family that has caused us to think differently about our own lives. The prayer book maybe hasn’t changed. The big ideas of these ten awesome days to start a new Jewish calendar year haven’t changed. But, perhaps, we have.
The truth is, just as students play a role in the value of their own learning, so too do we, as participants, have a role to play in making sure these days of awe have meaning. We can go through the motions of showing up to the synagogue, spending time with family, even fasting, but if we don’t imbue our own framework of meaning for why we do these things it is easy to feel like we lack any transformational significance. Many people move through this time of year on the Jewish calendar feeling exactly this way.
However, for those of us who yearn for a space in which to confront the possibility of transformation, we must play a role in our spiritual growth and education that these days afford. We must ask big questions, engage those around us in conversation and reflection, and make commitments to ourselves that don’t get lost after the fast of Yom Kippur ends, but travel with us as we go for another cycle of the Jewish holiday calendar until we arrive at Rosh Hashanah next year.
For those of you looking to take advantage of these coming days, I encourage you to make some intentions for what you want to get out of this collective time of reflection and renewal that the Jewish community finds itself at every year around this time. In what ways have you come up short or missed the mark this year? In what ways do you want to grow in your spiritual journey in the year to come? What are some tangible things you might do to help realize these goals? What is one way you might stretch yourself? Who is someone you owe an apology to?
For those inclined to see these holidays as just another High Holy Day season that comes and goes, consider the questions above and see if there is any resonance of change that has taken place; and is it a change that has you moving in the direction you desire or no? And for those who are inclined to see this time of year as a familiar marker along your journey, also consider these questions. The power of taking a few moments of reflection during this time of year can lead to powerful insights. These insights can fuel you to commit yourself to more intentional practice in the year to come. And, who knows, by this time next year, you might not feel like your coming up on the same old High Holy Day marathon, but rather a mirror along the way that allows you to see from where you came from and to clarify where you ultimately want to go.
To those who celebrate, we wish you a happy and healthy new year, filled with blessing and joy. For those who do not, we hope this time of year in which we reflect on our shortcomings and accomplishments as a community, provide a space for which to enhance your own awareness of where you are coming from and where you intend to go.
L’shanah tovah. To a good year!