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Jewish Holy Days Emphasize Forgiveness, Peace

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We Jews are in the early weeks of our fall holy day period. There are three parts to this season that are of spiritual interest: Selichot, Yamim Noraim and Sukkot.
The month of Elul is the final month of the Jewish liturgical calendar and is devoted to the practice of selichot, seeking forgiveness.

While Jews do teach about the importance of forgiving others, our primary focus is on asking others to forgive us.

When we ask forgiveness, we humble ourselves. When we humble ourselves over the hurts we have caused others, we are more willing to forgive the hurts others have caused us.

Throughout the month of Elul and even more intensely during the Yamim Noraim (Days of Awe from Rosh haShanah to Yom Kippur), we approach family members, friends, co-workers, neighbors and others with whom we interact and say, “If I have hurt you in any way knowingly or unknowingly, advertently or inadvertently, I ask your forgiveness.”

What if the other person refuses to forgive us? We must ask again.

How many times must we ask? While Jesus said we must ask 490 times (7 times 70, as in Matthew 18:22), our rabbis capped it at three.

If after sincerely asking forgiveness three times the other still refuses, God will forgive you, and the matter, at least as far as you are concerned, is settled.

Rosh haShanah, the first of the Days of Awe, is the anniversary of creation, and our time to honor God, the Source of Creation. (This year Rosh haShanah begins at sundown Sept. 28.)

For me, God is the Source and Substance of all reality, and Rosh haShanah is the time when I remember that all life is a unique yet temporary manifestation of God, the way each ray of sunlight is a unique and temporary manifestation of the sun.

I use Rosh haShanah as a time to realign my life with creation so that my living is in service to all life.

Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement (At-One-ment, Oct. 7 at sundown) is the culmination of all this effort. We have made peace with our neighbor, peace with nature, and now it is time to make peace with God.

For me, making peace with God is about remembering that God isn’t about salvation or damnation, reward or punishment. God is about reality for God is reality.

I make peace with God by realizing that life is wild, unpredictable, often horrifying and yet always hopeful.

I remind myself to not expect things to be other than they are and to be thankful for all that they are.

With this act of radical acceptance comes radical forgiveness, and, for me, this is what Yom Kippur is all about.

A few days after Yom Kippur, we celebrate Sukkot (Oct. 12 at sundown), our holy week celebrating the fall harvest.

We build and dwell in flimsy booths (sukkah/sukkot, plural) to remind ourselves of our nomadic origins, our wanderings in Sinai, our sheltering of both harvesters and harvest during the autumn ingathering, and the fragility of life.

We decorate our sukkot with fruit, give thanks for the earth’s bounty in a ceremony of waving lulav (a palm frond bound with myrtle and willow branches) and etrog (fruit of a citron tree), study the Book of Ecclesiastes, and share meals with friends during the week.

The harvest decorations remind us of the power of fertility even amid fragility. Eating with friends reminds us that friendship is the best way to navigate the chaos of life.

And studying Ecclesiastes links all of this to a way of life: eating and drinking in moderation, finding meaningful work and cultivating strong friendships.

This is a challenging season for Jews both logistically and spiritually. There is lots to do and much to ponder. And while the doing may be for Jews, the pondering is a good idea for everyone.

RabbiRamiShapiro is an author and educator. He blogs at BeyondReligion, where a version of this column previously appeared.