Friday, September 21, 2012

Powerful rituals symbolize High Holy Days -for the Las Cruces Bulletin, September 21, 2012

Powerful rituals symbolize High Holy Days
Jews mark season of forgiveness and repentance

Rabbi Lawrence Karol For the Las Cruces Bulletin
Forgiveness and repentance are major themes of the Jewish High Holy Day season, which began with Rosh Hashanah, the New Year (this year, it was from sundown Sunday, Sept. 16 to sundown Tuesday, Sept. 18) and ends with Yom Kippur, the Day of Atone­ment, a day of communal prayer and fasting, which will be observed from sundown Tuesday, Sept. 25, until sundown Wednesday, Sept. 26.
    One of the central rituals of the Rosh Hashanah observance is the sounding of the Shofar, the ram’s horn, during our New Year worship.
    The Shofar’s calls remind us to do the work of t’shuvah, repentance or returning to the right path, and s’lichah, seeking forgive­ness for what we have done wrong in the past year and resolving to do better.
     Another highlight of Rosh Hashanah involves going to a local body of water to perform the ritual of tashlich. This ceremony of casting bread crumbs into water derives its name from Micah 7:19. In that verse, the prophet Micah, speaking to God, said, “You will cast (tashlich) all our sins into the depths of the sea.”
    When I teach children about tashlich, we talk about sin (defined as a wrong act) in relation to unwanted habits such as inap­propriate expressions of anger, fighting with siblings or not attending to chores. I explain that tashlich reminds us we don’t have to be bound by past mistakes and undesired hab­its. Throwing bread crumbs into the water visually and physically demonstrates we can truly separate ourselves from our sins of the past and start with a “clean slate” in the New Year.
     Tashlich is a powerful ritual because it vividly illustrates the themes of the High Holy Days. It is one step in the process of
repentance as a return to the right path, because participating in tashlich is an admis­sion that we do make mistakes in action and judgment. It shows our resolve not to repeat past sins.
    Throwing the bread crumbs can be an act of self-forgiveness that reflects a sense of hope for improving ourselves in the future. We also gain a sense that we, as fallible human beings, have the possibility and the opportunity to try again to do the right thing when faced with the same situation in the future.
    Jewish sages saw repentance as a multi­step process. In his book “Minyan: Ten Prin­ciples for Living a Life of Integrity,” Rabbi Rami Shapiro explained the path toward repentance outlined by two important Jewish thinkers.
     Saadiah Gaon (882-942) was an Egyptian Jew who became a leading Jewish philoso­pher of the 10th century. He believed that repentance required four steps: 
1. Experience regret or remorse over the wrong act.
2. Admit to the act and renounce it as wrong.
3. Request forgiveness from those who were wronged.
4. Refrain from repeating the action in the future.
    About 100 years later, Bahya Ibn Pakuda, a Jewish philosopher in Spain, asserted that repentance involved a seven-step process: 
1. Be convinced that you are responsible for the action in question.
2. Realize that the act was a wrongful one.
3. Become aware that there is a conse­quence to your action.
4. Understand that your deed is not being ignored. Remember that even if no one else knows what you have done, you know, and so does God.
5. Realize that repentance alone will re­turn you to the path of righteousness.
6. Realize that the joy you received from
 doing the wrong thing is not as great as the joy of doing the right thing.
7. Sincerely resolve to break with the habits of evil to which you have grown ac­customed.
    The 12th century Jewish scholar Moses Maimonides offered a positive view of the healing that repentance can bring: “Repen­tance suffices for forgiveness of sins against God alone, but sins against human beings, such as violence or cursing or theft, are not forgiven until restitution is made and the injured person is satisfied, and restitution by itself is not enough. One must appease the injured person and ask forgiveness.
“By the same token, an injured person must not be cruel and unforgiving. We should be slow to anger and easily appeased.
And when our forgiveness is requested, we should grant it with a whole heart and a will­ing spirit. We should not be vengeful or bear grudges even for a grave injury – this is the way of the upright.”

There may be times when repentance is not enough to elicit forgiveness and engender reconciliation. However, it is still important to try to heal the wounds between people, espe­cially when we believe that all human beings are all created in one spiritual image.
Hopefully, repentance and forgiveness can bring us together so that our unity will ultimately reflect the oneness that unites all creation.

Rabbi Lawrence P. Karol is the spiritual leader of the Temple Beth-El Jewish congregation in Las Cruces.

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