Do Your Spiritual Homework for the High Holidays

September 8, 2015Rabbi Paul Kipnes

We cannot walk into the gym for just a few days a year and expect to be in shape. Students cannot step into school without reviewing the material and expect to ace the test, nor can lawyers walk into a courtroom without preparing arguments and wow the jury. Making a delicious dinner, decorating a house, or raising children require forethought and preparation.

Why, then, should we walk into the Jewish High Holidays and expect them to have meaning, if we haven’t done the prep work?

The Jewish new year – Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur – begins on September 13th. Jewish families will gather for festive meals, services in synagogue and, traditionally after fasting on Yom Kippur, enjoy a break-the-fast meal. We hear the shofar (ram’s horn), which, like an alarm clock, calls us to wake from our slumber and to change our lives for the better.  At its root, these days are about introspection, self-evaluation, and change.

These days, Jews and Jewish families engage in a serious introspection to evaluate our lives. Using a time-tested process, teshuvah (from the Hebrew root shuv, “to turn”), we turn (and re-turn) to the people we should be. Too often, we fall off our path because we lose focus, we mess up relationships, and we forget about our dreams. We get lost.

Your Spiritual Homework

At Congregation Or Ami in Calabasas, CA, we “assign” spiritual self-care “homework,” inviting everyone to reflect upon who they are, who they could be, and who they should be. Whether you are Jewish, or part of a Jewish family, or you are open to some self-reflection, we invite you to participate in this process.

Your homework, if choose to complete it, is to review your relationships and to begin the process of cleaning them up. Consider how you can make things right. Words followed up with actions are needed.

Step 1: Count your Blessings

The Hebrew word “to bless” (l’varech) contains two other words: lev (heart) and rach (softened). To bless someone, to feel blessed, you must soften your heart and to feel the blessings within your life. Think about your family, work, love life, social life, community, and spiritual/religious life. In what ways are you blessed? Make a list.

Step 2: Ask the Big Questions

The Hebrew word chet (usually translated as “sin”) might be best understood as “missing the mark.” When an archer aims and shoots, but the arrow misses the target, he refocuses and aims better. In our lives, we too must refocus. Ask yourself: How am I not living up to the image of who I could be?

Step Three: Do a Spiritual Self-Inventory

We cannot transform our lives until we first clean up our messes. Judaism teaches, “For the chet (harm) between a person and God, Yom Kippur atones. But for the chet between one person and another, Yom Kippur does not atone until the two people make peace with each another.” In the 12 steps of Alcoholics Anonymous, adherents do a penetrating self-inventory and ask forgiveness for those we have harmed.

Think about:

Your relationships: Who have I slighted? Not paid enough attention to? Have I really invested enough my spouse, partner, or lover?

Your workplace: Was I too harsh with my coworkers, employees, or my boss?

Your community: Did I share or spread gossip? Complain instead of helping improve? Engaged enough in tikkun olam (fixing the world)?

Step Four: Teshuvah, Returning to the Right Path

Now return yourself to the right path by looking over your inventory, committing to approaching two people. Apologize sincerely; ask how you can fix the brokenness.

On Yom Kippur, review your lists and actions. Are you taking the necessary steps to transform your life? Point the new “you” toward the vision of who you should be. A new year filled with blessing can be yours if you just clean up your past.

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