Rosh Hashanah Book Yom Kippur Book
Excerpt from: "Rosh Hashanah Yom Kippur Survival Kit"

Just Do It and Don’t Ask Questions

The dominant medium for communicating Judaism to this generation has been the synagogue or community Hebrew schools. Whatever Jewish education most Jews possess today came from those after-school or Sunday morning classes that we all swore we would never subject our children to. Another medium was our parents or grandparents. While no one can dispute that their hearts were deeply rooted in the right place, the fact remains that even the deepest of sentiments in no way readied them for the task of articulating Jewish values in a relevant and cogent manner. More often than not, their fallback position was, “We do it because we’re Jewish and that’s just the way it is.” And for better or worse, such an argument no longer carries the weight it once did.  

We find ourselves in a bewildering world.  We want to make sense of what we see around us and to ask:  What is the nature of the universe?  Where is our place in it and where did it and we come from?  Why is it the way it is?  Up to now, most scientists have been too occupied with the development of new theories that describe what the universe is to ask the question why.
- Stephen W. Hawking, A Brief History Of Time  

The same, I believe, can be said about Judaism today. As educated adults who happen to be Jewish, we tend to look at our religious heritage and find it to be rather bewildering. We would like to make sense of it, to find for ourselves a place within it, but we just aren’t sure what to make of the whole thing.

To a degree, the quandary of Jewish identity also stems from a prominent focus on the what and how of Jewish life at the expense of the why. A great problem is that Jewish education has stressed the mechanics of Judaism (the what and the how) and has neglected the reasons, meaning and spiritual ideas behind Jewish practice (the why). In a world where people carefully consider which activities will fill their time, you had better give them a darn good reason for choosing High Holiday services over the World Series, or quite frankly, you don’t stand a chance! …

The Why of Being Jewish

  … This book has been written for three types of people. Firstly, it is for people who have given-up on formalized Judaism and who are not planning to attend synagogue this year. If this is you, then I want to make the following promise: This book will give you a radically different understanding of Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and perhaps your entire Jewish identity. Read this book - I dare you - and you will find that there just might be a side to Judaism, and even to synagogue, that you can learn to enjoy and look forward to.

Secondly, if you are planning to attend services but are dreading the experience, then again, this book has been written for you. What’s more, I would suggest you read it twice. Once during the weeks before Rosh Hashanah and again during the services themselves.

Lastly, if you are among those who already have some sense of the meaning of these holidays, then I think that you - perhaps more than anyone else-will find the Survival Kit to be a worthwhile intellectual and spiritual supplement to your experience in synagogue this year.
Wishing you a Shana Tova, a sweet new year.  
- Shimon Apisdorf

(From Chapter 4)            How to Survive Synagogue

But Rabbi, even if I can read some of the prayers, I still don’t understand what I’m saying…To tell you the truth, I’d rather take a quiet reflective walk in the park this year than spend all that time in synagogue saying a bunch of words that don’t really mean much to me anyway.

Prayer is meant to be a powerful, relevant and meaningful experience. At the same time, a lengthy synagogue experience can be a bit intimidating. The following is a list of perspectives to keep in mind this year that should help to make the services as personally uplifting as possible.

1) Five minutes of prayer said with understanding, feeling and a personal connection to the words and their significance means far more than five hours of lip service. Therefore, don’t look at your prayer book as an all-or-nothing proposition consisting of hundreds of prayers that absolutely must be recited.  Rather, try looking at each page as its own self-contained opportunity for prayer, reflection and inspiration. If you are successful with one page that’s great; if not, then just move right along to the next page, the next of many opportunities.  

2) “Self-imposed expectations lead to self-induced frustrations.” Therefore, don’t expect to be “moved” by every prayer or to follow along with the entire service.  

3) Read slowly through the prayers, carefully thinking about what you’re saying, and don’t be concerned about lagging behind the congregation. Look, the worst that could happen is that you will be on a different page than everyone else, but don't worry, the pages will probably be announced so you can always catch up.  

If a particular sentence or paragraph touches you, linger there a while. Say the words over and over to yourself - softly, but audible to your own ear. Allow those words to touch you. Feel them. And if you’re really brave, then close your eyes and say those words over and over for a couple of moments.  

5) You’re not that proficient in Hebrew? Don’t worry, God understands whatever language you speak. And like a loving parent, He can discern what’s in your heart even if you can’t quite express it the way you would like.  

6) As you sit in your synagogue on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur you are joined by millions of Jews in synagogues all over the world. You are a Jew, and by participating in the holidays you are making a powerful statement about your commitment to Judaism and the Jewish people.

(From Chapter 7)            Take a Walk, Break Up a Stone, Listen to the Music, Act Like a Tree and Grow

Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are celebrations of human potential.  As such, they highlight our ability to grow as human beings and as Jews; they challenge us to develop our nascent capabilities, urge us to reflect on areas of stagnation, demand that we honestly confront our mistakes and insist that change is not only possible but is also in our hands.

One of the great Chassidic masters describes the human being as “forms wrapped within forms”, and life as a process of constantly uncovering hidden forms and bringing them out of potential into realization.

It is my hope that some of the thoughts contained in this chapter help bring the potential of these wonderful holidays within your reach and help you to nurture your own potential and bring it out into the light of actualization where it can shine brightly.  

For the human being is a tree in the field.

- The Torah
And he shall be like a tree planted by streams of water…
-  King David

The primary fruits of great people are their acts of goodness.
- Early Jewish sages

An angel is called “the one who stands.” Man is called  “the one who walks.”
- Jewish mysticism

Judaism finds the unique beauty of human beings in our ability to grow, to bear fruit and to walk and walk and walk. It is part of our nature to strive and to grow.  A voice from deep within us calls us to keep moving, keep trying, keep going forward. At the same time, there is nothing easier in life than complacency.  In the Jewish view, there is also nothing less human.  A cut flower shares its beauty, but only for a while, and it never grows again.

In truth, there are only two human tendencies.  The desire to grow and to soar spiritually and the urge to take a long nap.

Rosh Hashanah is a time to look again at ourselves as growers.  To remember that as long as there is life there is opportunity.  That within us all lie worlds of potential new life - even new lives - that are waiting to be nourished and cultivated.  Rosh Hashanah is the antithesis of stagnation, complacency and surrender. When the shofar sounds it is meant to rouse us. To focus our attention on the fact that today is a brand new beginning. A chance to start again. A fresh opportunity to set out down the a fertile path of growth. Rosh Hashanah is a day that celebrates the only being in the universe who walks, grows and bears fruit.  

As a young boy, Dan Berman was noticeably bright and witty, even at the age of six.  You could see the wanderlust in his eyes. At the age of twenty, after completing two years of college in just two semesters and after a ten-month stint as a bar-tender and fill-in piano player at a small jazz club, Dan hugged his disappointed parents farewell.

His search for wisdom took him to Burma, the mysterious Bosnian mountains, Jerusalem and Harvard.

By the time he was fifty, Dan was the semi-retired CEO of a small airline that had been bought by one of the “big boys.” His passions were Sun Tzu, Plato, the history of metaphysics, Steven Covey, Starbucks and cross country skiing.  For his son, he wanted everything.

Dan sent his son, whom he affectionately referred to as Mr. Magic, off to learn from the world’s wisest and most gifted teachers. More than anything else, for his son, he wanted wisdom.

One day, after many years of study and accomplishment, Mr. Magic came home to visit his father. “Please,” his father peacefully requested, “take that stone up to your old bedroom.” The stone that Dan pointed to looked like it had just been lifted off some sun-baked Arizona mountain; and it easily weighed over three hundred pounds.  Although he tried and tried, Dan’s son could not work his magic. And he became confused and depressed.

“Son,” his father said when he returned, “Have I ever asked of you the impossible?” “Go ahead, break it into pieces and then take it upstairs”

Sometimes our lives seem like immovable objects. The feeling of being overwhelmed comes easily. We want to grow, to move in new directions, to change - but it all seems to be too much.  Too heavy of a task.

There is an essential attitude that needs to be in place in order for one to be able to grow and to attempt significant, meaningful changes in life. This is the piece-by-piece attitude.

On the one hand, Rosh Hashanah is inspiring and invigorating as it calls upon us to shake off the dust of unrealized goals and unfulfilled dreams. From the vantage point of Rosh Hashanah we are able to capture a fresh spirit that encourages us to pursue all that is deeply meaningful to us in life; and we have a sense that it is yet within our grasp.

On the other hand, this can all be a bit overwhelming. “Oh come on,”  A voice within us says,  “Quit dreaming, get your feet back on the ground and try being realistic about things.” And of course, there is some truth in what that voice is saying. However, it is only a half-truth.

The truth is that we can’t achieve everything we want all at once and to attempt to do so will surely overwhelm us. This is why the piece-by-piece attitude is an important starting point for any attempt at growth. At the same time, we must never quit dreaming. And that is why we have Rosh Hashanah - to make sure we begin every year with a dream. And to encourage us not only to dream but also to transform those dreams into growth, piece-by-piece; and to walk, step-by-step; and to bear fruit.

(II) Let’s do lunch.
- Anonymous

Choose Life.
-  God

Life is not something that just is. It is not something you happen to possess as a by product of your birth and your health.

Life is far more than just the collection of certain biological functions in a particular organism. To relate to life as simply a biological state of being, the state of being alive, is to relegate the potential of human existence to something that is not only static, but something over which we have ultimately little or no control.

Life is something you do.  As in “Let’s do lunch.”

Life is dynamic and fluid and malleable.

Life is something you choose - and create.

Human beings are the only living creatures with the ability to choose life.

As we mentioned earlier (p.36) Rosh Hashanah is a birthday of sorts. According to our tradition this is the day on which the first human beings were given life. And as Jewish wisdom understands it, the purpose and challenge of the gift of being alive, is the opportunity to choose life. On Rosh Hashanah, the way we celebrate being alive is by choosing life.

(From Chapter 8)            Highlights of the Rosh Hashanah Morning Service

Hamayir L’aretz / He Illuminates the Earth

Each day He brings the universe into existence.  How vast are all Your creations…fashioned in wisdom…

Imagine if you could have witnessed creation itself.  Everyday is an opportunity to take a fresh look at the awesome wonders that surround us. To listen to the wind, the rain and the birds’ song.  To see the beauty of a gentle cloud, a creek, the trees and-  

Ahava Raba / You Have Loved Us Abundantly

For some reason it always seems easier to complain than to be thankful, to focus on what we don’t have rather than on what we do have.

Face your deficiencies and acknowledge them; but do not let them master you.  Let them teach you patience, sweetness, insight…Use your eyes as if tomorrow you would be stricken blind.  Smell the perfume of flowers, taste with relish each morsel, as if tomorrow you could never smell and taste again.
- Helen Keller  

For just a moment focus on those aspects of your life that are so very good, that enrich your existence; and feel the love.  

Hashem Sefasai Tiftach / God Open My Lips

A toddler thinks that she cannot walk, but she can. A child fears he will never swim, but he will.  Each of us is aware of our abilities and potential, and we all experience fear, doubt and hesitation.  Many of our limitations in life are more perceived than real.  Often, it is only phantoms that are holding us back.

In Hebrew the word for lips is the same as the word for banks, as in river banks. The banks of a river define its limits. When we say “God, open my lips,” we are also saying, “God, help me to see beyond my perceived limitations.  Help me to see all the way to the horizon of my potential.”   

Man: Microcosm of the Universe

God created two worlds: One of immense proportions and another equally vast, though not manifestly so.

In Hebrew the word for world, or universe, is olam. The universe is referred to as olam hagadol, the macro-universe. Man is known to our sages as olam hakatan, the micro-universe. The word olam also has another connotation: it means concealment. The fullness of what is contained in an olam, a universe, is not always apparent.

Man, microcosm of the universe that he is, is the keeper of a potential that borders on the infinite. On one level this thought defies our comprehension, while in the same instance it is clearly understood. We all wonder if there is anything that lies beyond the reach of human beings.

Each and every one of us is a unique olam, a universe of potential. One minute you see it and the next it seems to vanish. Our potential stretches as far as the eye can see.  

Zachreynu L’Chaim / Remember Us for Life

The voice was that of one who survived the unfathomable hell of Auschwitz. A silent terror still lines his face-even when he smiles.

“If I had a choice,” he said, “of having to relive every torturous moment again or to be a German guard in the camps, I’d go through it all again rather than serve for even one hour as a guard.”

The German guards lived and breathed. They went home to wives and children, they enjoyed the finest classical music and they laughed:  All in a day’s work. But they were dead.

The life that we ask for and strive for on Rosh Hashanah is more than just survival. It’s a life of value and meaning. You can be alive and dead or you can be alive and live. Choose life!

(From Chapter 14)            Teshuva: Four Steps to Greatness

My brother was fifteen when he bought his first horse. Unlike other kids who rode bicycles, skateboards, or motorcycles, my brother preferred a horse. Now this was no ordinary horse. This was an imposing jet black thoroughbred named Seriously, a retired race horse.

I took my brother up on his offer and decided to take Seriously for a ride around the neighborhood, a ride that was almost my last. Not far from my parents' home was a long, wide boulevard that featured expansive grassy islands running down the middle of the road. On one side of these islands traffic flowed in one direction and on the other side it moved in the opposite direction. In between each island was a crossover point so that cars could cut through and change direction. It was one of those crossover points that was almost my doom.

When old Seriously reached the top of that long open stretch of grass he had a sudden flash of déjà vu. He was once again a young, virile thoroughbred poised at the starting gate ready to impress the world with his speed and power. And there sat I, the unsuspecting victim of this wishful leap back to the days of one horse’s youth.

A bloodcurdling scream was lodged in my throat and Seriously was off to the races. The harder I pulled on the reins and the more violently I kicked his ribs, the less he paid attention to me. Faster and faster he galloped. We were closing in on one of those crossover points and it was clear that the horse had absolutely no intention of stopping to look both ways before crossing. Through the horrified tears in my eyes I could see that a red Cadillac and a new Mercedes sports car were both using the crossover and were totally oblivious to the horse and rider headed their way. At least, I thought, I’d go out in style.

To make a long story short, I survived, though I don’t think I’ve mounted a horse since.

Today, my brother lives on a farm with his wife and baby, raises chickens, owns a goat named Blackey and still rides his horse whenever he gets a chance. What’s amazing to me is that he can ride bareback and has no need for reins. He just jumps up and is instantly one with the animal. It responds to his commands and takes him - with more grace and power than my brother could ever muster - wherever he wants to go. He is the picture of a rider in perfect control of his horse. And me, well, I already told you that story. 

Body and Soul: Want Versus Feel

When our sages wanted to find an image that would capture the internal dynamics of human life, they chose a horse and rider. This is their picture of man and of the human condition.

There is a basic tension in life that we all feel. This is the tension that exists between what we want to do and what we feel like doing. Does this sound familiar? Do you recognize the tension? It works like this: I want to help my son with his homework - I feel like relaxing in front of the television. I want to lose fifteen pounds - I feel like having a piece of cheesecake. I want to visit my parents - I feel like playing tennis. I want to make a difference with my life - I feel like just getting by and minding my own business. I want to achieve the greatness of my potential - I feel like settling for being average.

The rider, what we want to do, is our soul. The horse, what we feel like doing, is our body. Mind you, Judaism never denigrates the body or physical pleasures. Quite the opposite. Judaism says that the pleasures of the physical world are here to be enjoyed, to be fully partaken of. There is just one question: who is in control? Is this a skilled rider leading a faithful obedient horse, or is this a rider who has lost control and is at the mercy of his horse’s every whim and desire? 

The Mistakes We Make

We all make mistakes. Almost everyday we do things that we really don’t want to be doing. It’s a fascinating phenomenon.

When was the last time you had the following experience? You were confronted with the opportunity to do something that you perceived as being wrong, something you clearly did not want to do; but a funny thing happened on the way to Yom Kippur. The very act that you didn’t want to do, you did anyway. Fascinating. Before you did it, you knew it was a mistake and you didn’t want to do it. While you were doing it, you knew it was a mistake and you didn’t want to be doing it, and after the fact you looked back in wonderment. Not feeling very good about yourself, you pondered, “Why did I do that?”

The answer is this: We are all geniuses, every one of us. When it comes to our ability to rationalize, the Einstein in all of us begins to surface. We are capable of the most convincing bits of intellectual dexterity, temporarily tying our minds in one convoluted knot after another, thereby enabling ourselves to do what we feel like doing instead of what we really want to do. This is the root of many of the mistakes we make in life. We all want to do what’s right. Only sometimes we rationalize and do what we feel like doing instead.

  Defining Our Terms

One of the most common words in your prayer book is “sin.” It’s not a very pleasant sounding word. Certainly no one wants to look at himself or herself as a sinner. In Hebrew, the generic term for sin is chet. This term literally means “to make a mistake.” Sins, no thanks. But mistakes-sure-we all make mistakes.

The issue on Yom Kippur is this: How do we correct the mistakes of our past and avoid repeating them in the future? If we can understand this, then we possess the key to unlocking an enormous reservoir of latent potential for greatness that would otherwise lie dormant.

This is teshuva. The common translation of teshuva is “repentance.” Again, a rather foreign sounding idea. The proper translation of the word teshuva is “to return.” Teshuva is an animated technique for locating the rationalizations that lie at the root of our mistakes: recognizing them, dealing with them and eliminating them.

  Four Steps to Teshuva - Four Steps to Greatness

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