High Holidays Good Time to Redefine Priorities

Dear Helen:

It’s been a long time since I’ve been a good practicing Jew. I support my synagogue financially and I attend the High Holiday services, but it’s mostly to connect with family and clients, not because I’m truly drawn towards a deeper relationship with religion. But one of my best friends has just been diagnosed with inoperable cancer, and another died of a heart attack in his 40s right after a game of racquetball. So I am thinking more about both my mortality and what it means to use the days of my life. How can I use the HH to make myself a better person and change some of my life priorities? I don’t expect a radical makeover, but I miss feeling like I am more than a workaholic machine.

Dear Lapsed:

One of the most intrinsic concepts to the High Holidays is teshuvah, which means return, where return is to both a relationship with God and to your true self. It’s often discussed in terms of making amends for what you’ve done wrong, with all the discussion, apologies and atonement that accompany admitting your lapses and sins, large and small. But it’s also about understanding, and committing to, what you need to do better. Doing teshuvah with real sincerity will help energize you to live the best life you can, not merely for yourself but for others, from sick friends to work colleagues. It will stretch the crack in your soul that your friends’ experiences have opened in you. It’s not easy, but it is a wonderful annual reminder about honesty and humility.

The rabbis describe how different teachers discipline students. One would reprimand, demanding the student acknowledge the wrong and agree to make amends. The other would say, “I’m disappointed you didn’t live up to who you really can be. Your soul is much greater than that.” Follow whichever teshuvah practice helps you live with more awareness and sensitivity in the new year. Stick or carrot, keep striving for goodness.

A year ago I almost died in a fire. It generated a deep form of teshuvah. I looked at each aspect of my world anew, and paid very close attention to how I felt in various situations. I became more discerning about when/why/how I was restless, lonely, annoyed, hungry and bored, as well as when I was joyous, attentive, playful and creative. I started to meditate regularly (there are many strong meditative traditions within Judaism). I found myself gravitating more toward silence, kindness and happiness and choosing to move away from kvetching, judgment and negativity, whether it was in myself or in others.

Don’t pressure yourself to change too fast; and don’t set the bar unreasonably high. Allow yourself to actively experience what it feels like to shift how you think of yourself (and how others may perceive you), to change what you do and with whom you spend time. Teshuvah is self-generating. It will soften and lighten you, heart and soul. It will change you deeply.

Working on your soul and on how you live your life is important work. Help your friend with cancer. Being an active part of his support team will keep you from being too self-centered. Visit your friend’s grave and talk to his spirit. Go to services more often. Ask for help in prayer and make time to listen to your own heart, whether through meditating or nature-walking. You will feel a state of renewal that will impact each future choice you make. Your life will become more conscious and less reactive. This is the beginning of tikkun olam, of healing and repairing the world. Like the phrase “think globally, act locally,” you are starting change within your heart and soul that will flow through you to those around you.

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