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Congregation Beth HaTephila

An Engaging, Inclusive, Reform Congregation in the Blue Ridge Mountains

Between You and Me - September 2021

This autumn holy day season has a design and focus that is radically different from all other Jewish holidays.  Most holidays draw our attention to changing cycles of nature and recall important stories that ground us in vital Jewish values.  For example, when we observe Pesach, we celebrate the onset of spring.  At the same time, our Seders walk us through the story of our ancestors’ exodus from Egyptian bondage and our continued mission is to relieve suffering wherever we find it.  Religious history and story are at the heart of our observances of Chanukah and Purim.  Tisha B’av and Yom HaShoah are opportunities to mourn tragic events in Jewish history. 

The Days of Awe make a completely different claim on our spiritual lives.  While the Machzor describes the priestly rituals of expiation executed back in the day, our gaze this season is not pulled backwards in time to those events.  The history we are interested in is our own: where we veered off our intended path, when we stayed true to ourselves, when we were able to show our truest self and when we betrayed ourselves and others through our actions and words.  While we read a lot of Torah, the most important Torah we must study at this season is the Torah of our lives. 

Where it gets really interesting and liberating is the assurance we are given at this season that our life story has no predetermined ending.

At the end of a Passover Seder, Pharaoh’s army always drowns in the sea while the Israelites safely rest on the far shores of freedom.  But on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, no such ending is offered.  Instead, we are boldly entreated to remember that ours is a story that is still unfolding and we are its authors.  Through the powerful tool of teshuvah, atonement, we can radically change the plotline, make U-turns and head in new directions should we so choose.  This season is about reminding us, as Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert has written, that “Human beings are works in progress that mistakenly think they’re finished.

It is true that we are partially products of our circumstances and conditioning.  It is true that we have habits that are difficult to break, personality traits that sometimes serve us and other times don’t.  It is true that we have a self that others know and is known to ourselves and there is security and familiarity in continuing being that self.  But these are not days we are to squander in our comfort zone.  These are days for our hardened ideas of “who we are” to be shaken loose by the shattering sounds of the shofar which proclaims to us again that we can be new in all the ways we hope to be and yearn to be.  Who we are is who we will create ourselves to be, over and over again. 

If anything, this year has been an education in managing the dark side of uncertainty.  I look forward to sharing with you this season of awakening to the possibility that is contained within uncertainty.  May it bring us all blessing.

Sun, October 2 2022 7 Tishrei 5783