What Children Can Teach Us at Rosh HaShanah

August 21, 2013Dasee Berkowitz

A deep spiritual life is hard to find. While opportunities abound for spiritual connections (yoga, meditation, retreats and the like), for most of us it doesn’t come easy. The noise, unfinished to-do lists and the distractions of everyday life interfere with quieting our minds, letting go of our egos for a moment and connecting to something far greater than ourselves.

On Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur, we notice just how difficult it is to connect spiritually. As we log in hours of prayer at our neighborhood synagogues, with unfamiliar liturgy and an unfamiliar language, we can easily let the longing for spiritual growth morph into a longing for the service to be over.

But for some, the spiritual life that we crave comes naturally. This is especially true for children.

Yes, they may be running through the synagogue’s aisles and “whispering” too loudly, but this time of year they can become our best teachers. We just need to slow down enough to listen to them.

Cultivating a relationship with God comes easy for children. As an adult, a relationship with God has never been central to my Jewish identity. It might sound strange because I live an observant life and prayer is important to me. The weekly holiday cycle punctuates my family’s calendar and Jewish ethics frame much of my behavior.

Still, I seldom credit my observance to God. Judaism is important to me because it adds meaning to my life. And if I start speaking about God, I start to feel self-conscious, too “religious” and slightly fundamentalist. Then I notice how easily my kids speak about God.

At 3, my son periodically gave a high five to God and explained to others what a blessing was. “A bracha,” he would say, “is like a group hug.” With his simple young mind, he experienced both a level of intimacy with God and recognized that connecting to God helps one develop a sense of intimacy with others.

The Rabbis call Rosh HaShanah “Coronation Day.” In the rabbinic mind, the metaphor of crowning God as Ruler and giving God the right to judge our actions was a powerful way to galvanize Jews to do the hard work of repentance, or teshuvah.

While the image of a King sitting in judgment might motivate some, the rabbis also knew that God is indescribable. Throughout the liturgy, they struggled to find other images that might penetrate the hearts of those who pray. The famous medieval piyut (liturgical poem) “Ki Anu Amekha” portrays God as a parent, a shepherd, a creator and lover.

The images continued to proliferate in modern times. The theologian Mordechai Kaplan spoke of God as the power that makes for good in the world. And the contemporary poet Ruth Brin speaks about God as “the source of love springing up in us.”

The liturgy on Rosh HaShanah challenges us to confront the meaning of God in our lives and then develop a level of intimacy with the Ineffable. While I am still not sure what God is, I am coming to appreciate the view that God is what inspires us to live our lives in service to others.

Children have a natural ability to be awestruck. There is so little that they have experienced in life that it must be easy for them to experience wonder. We watch their delight as they find out how a salad spinner works, or when they find a worm squirming in the dirt, or when they observe how flowers change colors as they enter full bloom.

These are not simply the sweet moments of childhood. These are ways of being that have deep theological resonance.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel recalls in "Who is Man" (1965), “Awe is a sense for transcendence, for the reference everywhere to mystery beyond all things. It enables us … to sense in small things the beginning of infinite significance, to sense the ultimate in the common and the simple: to feel in the rush of the passing the stillness of the eternal.”

Would that we could develop that sense of awe by first simply noticing our surroundings instead of being preoccupied with what comes next.

We can make space this Rosh HaShanah to begin a journey toward wonder, whether you notice the cantor’s voice as she reaches a certain note, or hear the crackle of a candy wrapper, or connect to the sound of your own breathing during the standing silent Amidah prayer. Take a walk sometime during the High Holy Days and notice the leaves on the trees, the sunlight refracting from a window, the taste of holiday food at a meal or the voice of a loved one. Notice the small things and consider for that moment that they have ultimate significance.

Consider the concept that Rosh HaShanah marks the birth of the world. Act as if nothing existed before this moment. Slow down, focus in, be silent and you may experience awe.

Children forgive easily, grown-ups not so much. The central work of the period of the High Holy Days is teshuvah, or return. We return to our better selves and make amends with those whom we have hurt in some way. Every year I recognize how uncomfortable I am to ask for forgiveness from family members, peers and colleagues. “So much time has passed” or “I’m sure they forgot about that incident” are common rationalizations I offer.

What takes an adult days, weeks or even years to let go of resentment takes children a matter of minutes before they are back to laughing with those with whom they once were angry. While it might be difficult to coax an “I’m sorry” from a child’s lips, they rebound quickly. It is a lesson for us.

Children offer their love freely. I am overwhelmed daily with the unbridled love that my 2 1/2-year-old daughter unleashes toward me as she jumps into my arms, hair flying, at the end of each day. For many adults, the doors of possibility seem to close more and more with every passing year. In contrast, the ecstatic joy and free spirit that children naturally exude is a lesson in being open to the fullness of what life can offer.

This Rosh HaShanah, let the children be our teachers. As we do teshuvah, let’s return to a simpler time and the more childlike parts of ourselves - when a relationship with God was intimate, when awe came easy, when we didn’t harbor resentments and when the door was open wide to forgive and to love.

Dasee Berkowitz is a contributing writer to JTA.

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