Yes, Virginia, there is a Chanukah.

Generations of Hebrew school kids have been bombarded with the repeated message: “Chanukah is not the Jewish Christmas.”

True–in fact, Christmas is more like the Christian Chanukah since it came afterwards.

Here’s what both holidays have in common:

  1. They both occur sometime near the Winter Solstice.
  2. They both involve lots of lights.
  3. They both have an exciting or important back story, infused with religious significance, that eventually came later.

Both Chanukah and Christmas have their origins in pagan winter festivals. Because this was the darkest and coldest time of year, it was customary for ancient people to light lots of fires for heat and light. Throw in some human sacrifice for good measure and you’ve got yourself a real party going–just not the type of soiree that early religious leaders wanted or approved of.

But how do you get people to stop when they’re having such a good time?

In a pretty clever example of “If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em,” these religious leaders used the existing winter solstice festivals, but gave them religious significance. Christians connected this time of year to a pretty important birthday. What did we do?

The holiday of Chanukah originally marked the Maccabees’ victory and re-dedication of the Temple in Jerusalem after its desecration by the hands of the Greeks. The narrative (as told in the Book of Maccabees) speaks about an unlikely but inspiring victory of a small band of rebels over a huge and formidable army, but includes not one word about any oil or miracle. Chanukah’s 8-day duration was likely reminiscent of King Solomon’s 8-day festival upon the completion of the First Temple. There’s also a connection to the 8-day festival of Sukkot which was originally delayed but then celebrated immediately upon taking back the Temple.

If Chanukah had simply remained a commemoration of a military event, it probably wouldn’t have endured for too many generations. (Don’t believe me? Do we still call November 11 “Armistice Day”?)

Then the rabbis of the Talmud came up with a brilliant idea–they “invented” a cool story to go along with Chanukah. In the Talmud, they asked themselves the question, “What is Chanukah?” and then proceeded to answer it. And here, hundreds of years after the historical events, do we read for the first time about finding only one container of oil with which to light the Temple’s menorah. This small quantity of oil then miraculously lasted for 8 days, enough time to produce a sufficient supply of pure oil to keep things going.

The rabbis’ story was brilliant in every way:

  • It used a humdrum story about a war (the guys loved it, but the ladies were channel surfing) and completely transformed it into a story with God, miracles, and special effects.
  • The story took a familiar piece of Temple equipment–the menorah, a 7-branched candelabra which was routinely lit all year round–and turned it into the identifying symbol of Chanukah.
  • Chanukah now provided a rationale for all the lights that people were using as part of their winter solstice festivals. Now those lights had a religious significance. Hanerot halalu kodesh hem. These candles are holy.
  • Bonus: this Talmudic story, written with the benefit of hindsight, took the focus off of the Maccabees and put it squarely on God performing a miracle. Not commonly known is that the Hasmonean dynasty themselves ended up mostly assimilating after a few generations. The rabbis weren’t big fans.


Teaser for my next entry:
Rather than copying a modern custom of Christmas, gift giving on Chanukah is in fact one of the most authentic customs we have. Stay tuned.

[shameless plug] Oh, and by the way, if you just can’t wait, you can read about this and every other interesting facet of Chanukah as well as all the other holidays in my book, Your Guide to the Jewish Holidays. [/end shameless plug]



Deconstructing Bar Mitzvah

This week’s Torah portion marks the 38th anniversary of my bar mitzvah. (Go ahead, I’ll give you moment to do that in your head). What struck me is how much and how little things have changed in that period of time.

On the one hand, synagogue life couldn’t be more different. The Conservative Movement has embraced total egalitarianism–no more second class treatment (such as those sorry Friday night bat mitzvah services) for the girls in our congregations. Women are full and equal participants in our services and synagogue leadership. Same sex weddings are accepted and commonplace. The music of the liturgy has evolved as well–appealing to a more modern ear while still preserving the rich history of past generations. Even the liturgy itself has changed to become less patriarchal and more inclusive.

But what about bar and bat mitzvah training and services?

In many ways, all aspects of the bar/bat mitzvah service and preparation have not changed much at all–not only since I put on that late 70’s-era 3-piece suit, but going back a lot longer than that.

We are still preparing kids to become 1950’s adult Jews. Put another way, this is your father’s bar mitzvah service. (Your grandfather’s as well).

So I hereby present the following exercise:

  1. Forget everything you know about bar or bat mitzvah!
  2. What would the ideal bar/bat mitzvah experience or preparation include? What would we stop doing? What would change?
  3. Nothing is off the table. For instance, should we even have a service? Should we still do it at age 13?

As you think about this, I want to give you one important piece of information: there is nothing required or halachic about a bar/bat mitzvah service. No one “gets bar mitzvahed”. It simply is a commemoration and celebration of the fact that a kid has already become old enough (age 13) to be obligated to observe Jewish laws and rituals.

I’d love to get a conversation going about this, and include as many past, present, and future b’nei mitzvah parents as possible. Please post your comments below so that we can all see and respond. As you can imagine, I have many opinions on this subject, but I’m waiting to hear from you first…

A God by any other name…

We Jews seem to spend an inordinate amount of time and effort avoiding ever saying God’s name. That has always struck me as strange.

The rationale is that God’s name is so holy, even uttering the word should be reserved for similarly sacred occasions. Praying. Making a blessing. Hoping those police lights in your rear view mirror aren’t for you.

Therefore, people often take the most common Hebrew word for God—Adonai—and substitute a word like Adoshem or simply Hashem (literally, “the name”).

It’s a nice idea—I’m a big fan of acknowledging the proper levels of holiness. The problem is that the word Adonai is itself a way of avoiding saying God’s name. It functions exactly the same as when we modern Jews say Hashem.

We deal with this whole subject every Yom Kippur, during the Service of the Kohen Gadol (the High Priest). Because God’s name was so unbelievably, incredibly, and awesomely holy, the High Priest would wait all year, put on his best priestly outfit, go into the inner chamber of the Temple in Jerusalem and….say it out loud. The rest of the crowd, assembled outside, would be so afraid of even just hearing it that they’d cover their ears like little kids and chant over the High Priest’s voice. Maybe as a result of that, or because nothing was written down back then, we don’t actually know the word the High Priest said. God’s real name is lost to us forever.

That’s one reason why every Prayer Book has different ways of referring to God in print. Sometimes they use the so-called tetragrammaton—a four-letter word that kind of looks like “Jehovah” but is actually a made-up mixture of the various tenses of the verb “to be.” Other print editions might use Hebrew letters like a double-Yud. In any case, the reader knows to pronounce those placeholders as “Adonai,” which itself is a perfectly good Hebrew word meaning “Our Lord.”

I have never felt the need to avoid saying Adonai when that word is used in context—teaching, singing, practicing, or any of the other numerous occasions that a person might bring God into a conversation. Having sung in various choirs over the years, I have observed the many tortured ways that singers have gone out of their way to not say Adonai when singing liturgical texts that are in fact all about Adonai. Some choirs will sing “Adomai”—figuring the audience won’t really hear the difference and at the same time they’ve avoided the word. A bit ridiculous in my opinion. What could convey a higher level of holiness and be imbued with sanctity more than a choir singing Jewish texts?

And now we come to my own silent fingernails-on-the-blackboard issue—writing the English word God as G-d. (Some equally unfortunate related examples are Gd or even L-rd.) Sometimes I picture God listening to humanity, doing His best Robert De Nero impersonation, squinting and saying, “Are you talking to me?”

The word God is a plain old, nothing special English word. Just like any other. Old English, Germanic, Anglo-Saxon origins—like most of the words we use. There’s nothing intrinsically holy about that word.

However, if you get yelled at when you’re trying to enter Olam Haba, you can just blame it on M-tt.

The Binding of Isaac–The Deleted Scenes

Is it possible to know an iconic and beloved story of the Torah so well and realize that for generations, despite everything that we’ve been taught and thought we understood, we’ve been completely and utterly missing the point? The narrative of the Akeida, the near sacrifice of Isaac is one such story. Supposedly a text which paints Abraham as an obedient servant of God, this story instead serves as a disturbing and powerful polemic on religious fundamentalism and the damage that it causes.

Read the familiar story–the words in bold represent the original text as taken from Genesis Chapter 22, with the other passages describing the behind-the-scenes action:

One day, God asked His angels whether they thought that a good and moral man would actually commit murder just because he was told to. They weren’t sure, so some time afterward, God put Abraham to the test. He said to Abraham, “Abraham,” and he answered, “Here I am.” 

God thought to Himself, “This is Abraham, the man who argued with me over and over again, looking for a way to spare the cities of Sodom and Gemorrah in case there were just a few good people living there.”

And He said, “Take your son, your favored one, Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the heights that I will point out to you.” God fully expected Abraham to protest, or at the very least to bargain about the intended victim. Perhaps Abraham would agree to sacrifice his less favored son, Ishmael.

But to God’s surprise, early next morning, Abraham saddled his ass and took with him two of his servants, and his son Isaac. Abraham even snuck out of the house quietly so as not to disturb his wife Sarah or to let her find out what he intended. He split the wood for the burnt offering, and he set out for the place of which God had told him. On the third day, Abraham looked up and saw the place from afar. God was fairly certain that Abraham would abandon this ridiculous demonstration of devotion when he saw the outrageous distance that he would have to travel. Even putting aside what he intended to do once he arrived there, it would be cruel to force the innocent servants and the poor animal to travel so far by foot. Then Abraham said to his servants, “You stay here with the ass. The boy and I will go up there; we will worship and we will return to you.”

God couldn’t believe what He was seeing. “He cares more for his servants than for his own flesh and blood. What have I started?”

Abraham took the wood for the burnt offering and put it on his son Isaac. He took the firestone and the knife; and the two walked off together.  Isaac had no concept of what his father intended for him. Then Isaac said to his father Abraham, “Father!” And he answered, “Yes, my son.” And he said, “Here are the firestone and the wood; but where is the sheep for the burnt offering? Are we to sacrifice another animal instead?” And Abraham said, “God will see to the sheep for His burnt offering, my son.” Isaac wondered whether they would be able to find a proper sheep for sacrifice in the place where they were going. And the two of them walked on together.

They finally arrived at the place which God had told them. Abraham built an altar there; he laid out the wood; he surreptitiously crept up behind Isaac, and overpowered him before Isaac knew what was happening, for surely Isaac would have resisted his father’s intentions. He bound his son Isaac; he laid him on the altar, on top of the wood.

“Father! What in God’s name are you doing? Let me go!”

And Abraham picked up the knife to slay his son. Isaac shouted, “Help me! For the love of God, help! Madman!” God heard the cries of Isaac, called an end to this horrible “test” and at that moment, God vowed that He would never again speak to Abraham. He turned to His angel and said, “Get him to stop this already. I can’t even bring Myself to look at his face.”

Therefore an angel of the Lord called to him from heaven: “Abraham! Abraham!” Abraham wondered who the voice was that was calling him, and he answered “Here I am.” And he said, “Do not raise your hand against the boy, or do anything to him, for now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your favored one, from me.” When Abraham came out of his trance and looked up, his eye fell upon a ram, caught in the thicket by its horns. So Abraham went and took the ram and offered it up as a burnt offering in place of his son. Meanwhile, Isaac finally managed to free himself from the ropes binding him to the altar. He spoke quietly to his father and said, “Father, why have you done this to me?”

Abraham didn’t answer Isaac, as he was intent on dealing with the ram that he had sacrificed.

Isaac again pleaded, “Father…”

Finally, Isaac turned and began to walk away by himself. He knew then that he too would never speak to his father again.

Abraham then returned to his servants, and they departed together. It never occurred to him that Isaac was nowhere to be found.

For the rest of Abraham’s life, neither God nor Isaac ever spoke another word to Abraham again.


A Modern Parable of Noah: Has Anything Changed?

This is the line of Noah. Noah was a righteous man; he was blameless in his age; Noah walked with God.


God said to Noah, “I have decided to put an end to all flesh, for the earth is filled with lawlessness because of them: I am about to destroy them with the earth. Make yourself an ark of gopher wood; make it an ark with compartments, and cover it inside and out with pitch. This is how you shall make it: the length of the ark shall be three hundred cubits, its width fifty cubits, and its height thirty cubits.


“For My part, I am about to bring the Flood—waters upon the earth—to destroy all flesh under the sky in which there is breath of life; everything on earth shall perish. But I will establish My covenant with you, and you shall enter the ark, with your sons, your wife, and your sons’ wives. And of all that lives, of all flesh, you shall take two of each into the ark to keep alive with you; they shall be male and female. From birds of every kind, cattle of every kind, every kind of creeping thing on earth, two of each shall come to you to stay alive. For your part, take of everything that is eaten and store it away, to serve as food for you and for them.” Noah did so; just as God commanded him, so he did.

Noah was six hundred years old when the Flood came, waters upon the earth. Noah, with his sons, his wife, and his sons’ wives, went into the ark because of the waters of the Flood. Of the clean animals, of the animals that are not clean, of the birds, and of everything that creeps on the ground, two of each, male and female, came to Noah into the ark, as God had commanded Noah. And on the seventh day the waters of the Flood came upon the earth.

In the six hundredth year of Noah’s life, in the second month, on the seventeenth day of the month, on that day all the fountains of the great deep burst apart,
and the floodgates of the sky broke open. The rain fell on the earth forty days and forty nights. That same day Noah and Noah’s sons, Shem, Ham, and Japheth, went into the ark, with Noah’s wife and the three wives of his sons— they and all beasts of every kind, all cattle of every kind, all creatures of every kind that creep on the earth, and all birds of every kind, every bird, every winged thing. And the Lord shut him in.


The Flood continued forty days on the earth, and the waters increased and raised the ark so that it rose above the earth. The waters swelled and increased greatly upon the earth, and the ark drifted upon the waters. When the waters had swelled much more upon the earth, all the highest mountains everywhere under the sky were covered. Only Noah was left, and those with him in the ark.

At the end of forty days, Noah opened the window of the ark that he had made and sent out the raven; it went to and fro until the waters had dried up from the earth. Then he sent out the dove to see whether the waters had decreased from the surface of the ground. But the dove could not find a resting place for its foot, and returned to him to the ark, for there was water over all the earth. So putting out his hand, he took it into the ark with him. He waited another seven days, and again sent out the dove from the ark. The dove came back to him toward evening, and there in its bill was a plucked-off olive leaf! Then Noah knew that the waters had decreased on the earth. He waited still another seven days and sent the dove forth; and it did not return to him any more.

God spoke to Noah, saying, “Come out of the ark, together with your wife, your sons, and your sons’ wives. Bring out with you every living thing of all flesh that is with you: birds, animals, and everything that creeps on earth; and let them swarm on the earth and be fertile and increase on earth.” So Noah came out, together with his sons, his wife, and his sons’ wives.

Then Noah built an altar to the Lord and, taking of every clean animal and of every clean bird, he offered burnt offerings on the altar. The Lord smelled the pleasing odor, and the Lord said to Himself: “Never again will I doom the earth because of man, since the devisings of man’s mind are evil from his youth; nor will I ever again destroy every living being, as I have done.


Noah, the tiller of the soil, was the first to plant a vineyard. He drank of the wine and became drunk, and he uncovered himself within his tent. Ham, the father of Canaan, saw his father’s nakedness and told his two brothers outside. But Shem and Japheth took a cloth, placed it against both their backs and, walking backward, they covered their father’s nakedness; their faces were turned the other way, so that they did not see their father’s nakedness.

This is the story of Noah. Noah was a good kid and he was pretty religious compared to a lot of other Jewish kids in his class; his family belonged to a synagogue.

Noah’s parents said to him, “We have decided you need to have a bar mitzvah. You will attend lessons at the temple for one hour a week. Take the haftorah that the cantor gives you and memorize the words and the tune. Learn the portions of the service that are chanted out loud but don’t worry about any silent parts.


“For our part, we’ll plan the entire event. We will schedule your lessons with the cantor, keep track of everything that you are assigned, make sure that you practice according to the wishes of the cantor. We will drive you to and from the temple and call to cancel and reschedule when you are not able to attend your lesson. For your part, memorize the words and melodies that the cantor gives you so that you can sing it later.” Noah did so, just as his parents instructed him.


Noah was 12 ½ years old when his lessons began. Noah, with his parents, went into the cantor’s office to begin learning and memorizing the Hebrew texts.
And in the seventh month, Noah’s bar mitzvah started.




In the 13th year of Noah’s life, all of his relatives, friends, and classmates poured into the synagogue, put a book on their laps, sat quietly, and watched as Noah chanted his haftorah and lead the service. The bar mitzvah service began and by that time, Noah, Noah’s parents, his little brother, his aunts, uncles, cousins, and friends were all in the sanctuary with him. And the temple ushers closed the doors so that people would not congregate in the lobby.


The service lasted 2 ½ hours. The rabbi spoke about the Torah portion and the cantor helped Noah remember where he needed to stand. All of the people sitting in the congregation fidgeted and tried to stay comfortable. Only Noah and his family were able to sit or stand on the bimah.


After about an hour, Noah asked his parents how much longer the service would last. They weren’t sure, so they asked some other congregants who usually attended. After another 30 minutes, they asked again, and this time they were told that it was almost over. Noah and his parents knew that the service was almost over but they still had to wait. The rabbi spoke to Noah on the bimah and presented him with a bar mitzvah certificate! Then Noah and his family knew that the service was over, and they could leave the sanctuary.


Noah’s parents told all of the guests, “Everyone come out of the temple and make your way to the party. We printed direction cards for you, and there’s a bus for the kids.”



They all arrived at the reception where the food smelled delicious. Noah and his parents were thrilled that all the hard work and stress were behind them. They said, “We won’t ever have to sit through services again or make Noah learn a haftorah.”


At the bar mitzvah party, Noah’s parents were extremely relieved that everything had gone so well and that Noah had been able to memorize all the material. They set up a vodka bar and drank with all of their friends. Even Noah snuck a drink when no one was looking. Noah made a grand entrance into the party on the arms of two dancers who were practically naked.


Please Rain on our Parade

I’m not a fan of the angry Old Testament God.

Obey my commands or suffer the consequences. Light a fire on the Sabbath Day and be put to death. Commit utter genocide on the enemy tribe of Amalek—kill all men, women, and children.

There’s a reason why the religion we follow is generally regarded as “Rabbinic Judaism” rather than “Biblical Judaism.” The events of the Bible and the laws that are given needed to be put into a more user-friendly context. One classic example is from a passage we read from the Torah not too long ago—what to do with a rebellious and disrespectful child. The Torah tells us that the parents should publicly declare that they’ve had it up to here with this kid, and he won’t listen to anything they tell him. They bring him out to the public square where he’s promptly stoned to death. (Yeah, ok, sure, we’ve all thought about it, but….)

The rabbis who came later put a reasonable spin on that—they basically put so many additional requirements on the scenario that it could never realistically be carried out. They understood that it was the underlying message—that of honoring your parents—which was important and not the conditions by which we could eliminate our children.

This is the challenge of the modern Jew—how do you take a seemingly archaic or anachronistic text or law, and make it relevant and meaningful for modern life?

One example for me is the middle paragraph of the Shema, a familiar litany of reward and punishment. Obey each thing I tell you, God says, and you’ll have everything you need. Rain in its season. I’ll let you live. But if you disobey me…the heavens will dry up, no more rain, your crops will die and your animals will perish. You’ll soon disappear from the land forever. Nice. Lovely.

But underneath the ancient and disturbing theology lies a modern, twenty-first century message on global warming and how we treat the environment. We do depend on rain in its season—the proper amount at the right time. For that to happen, we have to be responsible about our actions and what effect they will have on us, whether it’s immediate or down the road a hundred or so years.

That message is all the more powerful this week as we prepare to celebrate the festival of Shemini Atzeret—yes, that’s a real holiday and no, I didn’t just make it up so I could cancel your kid’s bar mitzvah lesson. During services on this day, we recite Tefilat Geshem, the Prayer for Rain—linking the festival to the agricultural cycle of the Land of Israel. But we up the ante by invoking the recently passed High Holidays. Traditionally, the cantor pulls out his or her just-put-away white robe, and the entire service looks and feels like Yom Kippur all over again. The implication is that rain—having enough water to drink and to grow crops and feed animals—is literally a life-or-death matter.

Whether you believe that God sits in Old Testament judgment over us and doles out the moisture accordingly, or if we ourselves have the power to evaluate our actions and how they impact the environment, we acknowledge the fragility of our world and the effect that our climate holds over our lives. The Prayer for Rain is one reminder that our decisions today will certainly affect future generations.



Think Fast!

I’m still trying to figure out how a holiday like Yom Kippur made it past quality control.

It started out simply enough—let’s have one day on the Jewish calendar dedicated to atonement for all of the previous year’s misdeeds and transgressions. Since it needed to convey a sense of gravitas, the Torah decreed that on this day, Jews would need to “afflict their souls.”

That could have taken many forms—I feel afflicted if I turn on Fox News—but things soon took an unexpected turn. Apparently, some sadistic rabbis got together and decided that afflicting our souls meant no eating or drinking for the duration of the holiday. You gotta hand it to those guys—they knew how to hit the Jews where it counted.

Fast forward a couple thousand years, and I wonder if we’ve lost the point of fasting on Yom Kippur.

Rather than an important facet of Yom Kippur, the fast itself has become the objective of the day. It’s interesting that among North American Jews, there are three rituals throughout the year that are widely observed, irrespective of level of observance or synagogue affiliation: having or attending a Passover Seder, lighting Chanukah candles, and yes, fasting on Yom Kippur. There is a perception that if you simply make it through the 25 or so hours without eating or drinking, you’ve accomplished the goal of Yom Kippur.

Fasting takes up most of what we discuss on Yom Kippur—who can bravely make it through and who will fail miserably by having to eat something. And kids—who should not be fasting at all—often try to see how long they can go without food. More seriously, there are elderly people who insist on fasting and skipping necessary nutrition and medication.

Leading up to this day, we commonly wish each other “an easy fast.” Wouldn’t it make more sense to hope for a grueling and gut-wrenching fast? After all, this is the way that we’re supposed to afflict our souls. Put another way—if there was a pill that you could take just before Yom Kippur that would prevent you from ever becoming hungry or thirsty over the course of the following day, would you take it? Why bother fasting at all if you’re hoping to have an easy time of it?

Because of this apparent disconnect between the act of fasting and the actual theme of Yom Kippur, some people have instead begun to wish each other “a meaningful fast.” But I think an even better goal is to have “a useful fast.”

Seen in this light, fasting is merely one of the tools that we have in order to fulfill the act of atonement and change. When we fast, a few things happen:

First, we decide for one day that we’re not going to concern ourselves with mundane subjects like what’s in the fridge and figuring out what we’re having for lunch. We don’t need to look at the clock and worry that we won’t get home from temple in time to eat. For one day, there’s something even more important that we have to take care of.

Next, we express the seriousness of our intent to engage in self-reflection and atonement. We literally put our words of prayer where our mouths are, causing ourselves some mild physical discomfort (and if it’s any more than that, then you should not be fasting).

But maybe most importantly, fasting is an act of empathy. It’s humbling. In a time and place where none of us ever go without food, there’s one day a year when we go to bed hungry, forcing ourselves to realize that this is the constant reality for so many adults and children. We know that if we just stick it out, we’ll soon be able to break the fast (usually by eating an entire day’s worth of food in one hour), a luxury not shared by so many unfortunate people.

So for this Yom Kippur, I wish all those who choose to go without food, whether it’s for one meal or the entire duration of the holiday, a useful fast. Let it move you out of your comfort zone, a wish expressed more than 2500 years ago by the prophet Isaiah, who had no problem calling out the hypocrisy of fasting if it didn’t lead to further action:

Is this the kind of fast I desire?
A day of merely depriving one’s body?

Is not the fast that I desire
the unlocking of the chains of wickedness,
the loosening of exploitation,
the freeing of all those oppressed, 
the breaking of the yoke of servitude?
Is it not the sharing of your bread with the hungry,
the bringing of the wretched poor into your home,
or clothing someone you see who is naked,
and not hiding from your kin in their need?

Whether literally doing without food and drink, or as a metaphor for positive change as Isaiah suggests, may you have a useful fast.



Not Who Shall Live, but How Will You Live?

Ever wonder what we’re thinking about up there on the bimah during High Holiday services?

Hint: At any given moment, it’s probably not repentance, the majestic music, glorious liturgy, and themes of God’s sovereignty.

During services, we’re likely to be distracted with a multitude of various items, like who has the honor to open the ark (and if they’ll make it up to the bimah in time), if the huge crowd is starting to get a little noisy (including fussy babies and a few cell phones), if the custodial staff remembered to set the thermostat sufficiently low to accommodate the thousand or so bodies in the room, remembering which pages that I like to sing versus the points in the service when the Rabbi would like to pause to provide further explanation, and so many more details that are involved in the annual immense undertaking of High Holiday services.

So unlike at most other services during the year, I feel fortunate if I can manage to get myself into the “zone” and really connect with the words of the liturgy. But even with everything else going on, there’s one well-known text which never fails to speak to me. As I chant the words of Unetaneh Tokef, everything around me fades and I focus exclusively on the powerful, and yes, disturbing message of this prayer.

This text contains the familiar passage “Who shall live and who shall die,” and on the surface, gives us the iconic image of God (hopefully) inscribing our names in the Book of Life for the coming year.

But is that really what we believe? Is this the theology to which the Jewish people subscribe?

A literal reading of Unetaneh Tokef tells us that on Rosh Hashanah it is written and on Yom Kippur it is sealed who among us will live or die over the next year. It’s a done deal. Decided. Set. Pre-ordained. But that seems to directly contradict the very purpose of our sitting in shul over the High Holidays—if our survival over the next year is a fait accompli, what possible reason is there to pursue teshuvah, evaluate our behavior, and seek to make better choices? Even the ending line of the prayer tells us, “But teshuvah, prayer, and good deeds can annul the severity of the decree.” How exactly can that happen if our fate for the next year is not just written, but is in fact already sealed?

Clearly, we need to understand this provocative text differently. I view it as a statement of our own mortality. While I lead this prayer, I am able to stand at my podium on the bimah and look out upon the entire congregation. There are often many congregants that unfortunately passed away over the year, and are no longer present. And even more heartbreaking is to realize that there are friends and neighbors I see at that moment who will not be there next year. Our lives are fragile—it goes more deeply than “Who shall live and who shall die.” In fact, these words repeatedly drive home how vulnerable we really are. For instance, during the litany of unfortunate outcomes, when we read “who by fire and who by water,” how can we not immediately think of the devastation caused by the recent hurricanes and those who perished in flood waters?

We can’t do any better on the High Holidays than to recognize the precariousness of our lives, and pledge to treat others with thoughtfulness and caring. May the Yamim Noraim—the Days of Awe—serve as an opportunity to renew our commitment to each other, and to fulfill the mandate of Tikkun Olam¸ fixing the world around us.

Repent Now!

Shortly before the High Holidays a number of years ago, I was teaching my 6th grade Hebrew school class about teshuvah—repentance. Everything was going really well as I explained why repentance is important and how repentance is an integral part of our Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur preparation.

Towards the end of the class, a slow and disturbing realization started to wash over me. I stopped and asked,

“By the way, does anyone happen to know what the word ‘repentance’ means?”

My question was met with a classroom full of glassy-eyed stares.

Teacher of the year I’m not.

But I think that story could apply to many of us. While I’m sure that most of us can in fact define the word, relatively few of us truly understand what repentance is, even though we use the term repeatedly over the course of the High Holidays.

Most people would describe repentance as the act of apologizing. While that’s certainly part of it, saying that you’re sorry is only the beginning.

You might go further and point out that in addition to seeking forgiveness, there must be an element of making amends.

But how do you do all that? To whom do you apologize? Do you attend services, recite some prayers, and you’re covered? In fact, Judaism recognizes that there are two different paths that our sins can follow: ways in which we have sinned against God, and ways that we have wronged other people. Performing teshuvah is not a one-size-fits-all process.

It might be common this time of year to have people say to you, “If I’ve done anything to offend or hurt you over the past year, please forgive me.” That’s a well-meaning gesture, but ultimately does very little to put you on the road to repentance. You’ve taken no risk, you’ve undertaken little reflection, and you’ve effected no change. It often reminds me of when politicians make some inappropriate comment, succumb to public pressure, and say, “I’m sorry if anyone was offended by what I said.”

The true act of repentance means identifying where you’ve gone wrong and apologizing and making amends for specific acts. But wait, you’re not done yet. Ultimately, the true test of repentance is whether or not you’ve permanently changed your behavior and choices so you don’t repeat the actions.

I’m always fascinated by people’s stories of teshuvah and reconciliation. Do you have a story to share?

Worst. Metaphor. Ever.

As a runner, I’m obsessed with numbers. Measuring my distance to a tenth of a mile (and getting stressed when my GPS watch doesn’t agree with mapmyrun on the computer). Maintaining my pace—minutes and seconds per mile—and not running a second slower than before. Becoming upset because I finished a race 43 seconds slower than last year. This is all familiar territory to regular runners. We live and die by numbers—by quantifying things.

Practicing Judaism shouldn’t be thought of in the same way. Yet, too often we get stuck in exactly the same numbers-obsessed world. We evaluate our success by quantifying things. How many people can we get to come to Friday night services? Oh wow, you get 50 at your shul? We can only get about 40. Sure, but you should see our sanctuary on Saturday morning—we get around 100 people. How many families do you have? We were at 375 before but, you know, the economy isn’t great, so this year we’re down to 368. On and on it goes.

In many cases, we’ve done this to ourselves. One of the most popular and enduring metaphors in Jewish tradition is that of a simple ladder. We are taught that Jewish observance can be compared to the rungs of a ladder. All of us, according to this metaphor, are somewhere on that ladder—and it’s not important where. What matters, though, is that we’re moving up on the rungs—adding to our observance to the Jewish laws and rituals. The starting point isn’t as important as the fact that we’re going higher, adding holiness, and moving our lives in a positive direction.

I’m not a fan.

What’s the implicit message, then, if you’re not climbing (or if God forbid, you’re descending) this imaginary ladder? That’s right—and you all know what’s coming—you’re a Bad Jew. People love to toss that phrase around, often in a self-deprecating manner, and really, truly believe it.

“I drive on Saturday. I’m a bad Jew.”

“He never goes to services because he’s a bad Jew.”

“I grew up religious but since then I’ve become a bad Jew.”

Could we stop using this destructive and utterly inaccurate phrase—forever?

Instead of the dubious image of the ladder, picture a giant banquet table instead. Replace vertical with horizontal. The whole of Jewish ritual and tradition is laid out in front of you and you can have anything you want. You may help yourself to whatever you like, and politely refuse other items. You can sample something, decide you don’t like it, and put it back. And then try it again later. There are no judgments, implicit or otherwise, as you make your way across the banquet table.

The High Holidays are soon upon us, and we understand that this time of year is a period of judgment. But that judgment is to come from within—how we view ourselves, how we treat people, the decisions that we make in our lives. In other words, our mandate is to judge, not be judgmental.

Let’s put the ladder away and never think of others or ourselves as bad Jews. There’s simply no such thing.