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A High Holidays Social Justice Guide

The Yamim Noraim, the High Holidays, are a time of personal reflection and repentance, when Jews throughout the world examine the past year and envision the year that is yet to be. Starting the new year is an opportunity to reaffirm the Jewish tradition’s longstanding commitment to tikkun olam (repair of the world).

The Talmud teaches that there are four New Years: one for the trees, one for the months, one for tithing animals and one for the years. The New Year for the years, Rosh HaShanah, also marks the anniversary of the world’s creation.  In addition to the themes of repentance, self-reflection and prayer that we traditionally consider during the High Holidays, we also are given an opportunity to acknowledge and celebrate God’s work in creating the world. As we contemplate our actions, both good and bad, during the past year, we also turn our thoughts to the world around us, and our role as the stewards of creation.

These are some things you can do during the High Holidays to highlight this responsibility to take care of God’s creation.

Celebrate Creation

Rosh HaShanah also marks the anniversary of the creation of the world. In addition to the themes of repentance, self-reflection and prayer that are traditionally thought about during the Yamim Noraim, this can also be a time to mark and celebrate God’s work in creating the world. Try doing so in the following ways:

  • Volunteer to clean-up litter in your neighborhood, public parks or organize a neighborhood-wide clean-up day.
  • Start a scrap-paper pile in your home or office to re-use or recycle wasted paper.
  • Start a compost pile.
  • Conduct an energy audit to calculate home energy consumption and the size of your “carbon footprint.”
  • Make a donation to an environmental cause or to support green energy to compensate for the amount of carbon you generate.

Reframe Tzom Gedalia

Tzom Gedalia, the Fast of Gedalia, is a minor fast day takes place on the third day of the Hebrew month of Tishrei between Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur. Dedicate this personal day of fasting (from sunrise to sundown) to the millions of people around the world who face hunger and starvation on a daily basis. End your fast day by volunteering at a local food pantry, soup kitchen, Meals on Wheels, or any organization that works to combat the challenges of hunger. Donate to a hunger awareness/advocacy organization the amount of money you would have spent to feed yourself and your family during the day.

Explore Your Own Eating Habits

Make a “new year’s resolution” to commit to making healthy and sustainable food choices in the coming year through education, programming, and advocacy. Start with Rosh HaShanah dinner: Learn about and prepare a meal that is organic, vegan, includes products that are fair trade or purchased from local farmers as a way of supporting best environmental practices.

Feed the Hungry

At this most holy time of year, we willingly deny ourselves sustenance in order to more readily recognize the pain of those who suffer hunger throughout the year. Rather than focusing on our own hunger during our ritual fast, we turn our thoughts and our actions to the millions of people around the world who cry out daily in hunger.

  • Volunteer at a local food pantry or homeless shelter as a family.
  • Join a meal delivery program to deliver hot meals to homebound individuals.
  • Coordinate a High Holiday food drive.
  • Delivers pre-packaged baskets of Rosh HaShanah goodies (honey cake, apples, jar of honey, challah) to needy Jewish families in the local area using a list of families provided by the local Jewish social service agency.

Hold a Social Justice Tashlich

The custom of tashlich takes place on Rosh HaShanah afternoon. During this ritual Jews go to a body of water and symbolically “cast their sins” from the previous year into the flowing water. Traditionally bread crumbs or food are used to symbolize the sins. Instead, use pebbles or stones found near the water to remember those who face daily hunger – those for whom even the crumbs might mean the difference between life and death. As you participate in this ritual and begin the atonement process, think of ways you can act in the coming year to help those who are in need of food. Or, shake the dust from your clothing to perform the ritual of “casting away your sins” to reflect on environmental issues.

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