Friday, August 28, 2009

Preparing for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, Part 2

It ain't magic, ya know.

You simply cannot show up in synagogue on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, mumble a few prayers, and expect to be magically cleansed of your sins. It is not even clear what being "cleansed of your sins" means in that context. To make these holidays meaningful, it takes a little work ahead of time. But fortunately the payoff is large. These holidays represent an ideal opportunity to take stock of our lives, think about what we are doing right and try to continue it during the next year, and think about what we are doing wrong and take steps to correct that during the next year. Part of the great wisdom inherent in the Jewish holidays is that they provide very real, practical, and this-worldly opportunities to make our lives better.

Last year, I posted about how I and others prepared for Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. A few commentators made other suggestions. I was speaking to (an Orthodox) friend and colleague the other day, and he graciously shared the interesting way in which he prepares for the holidays.

Each year during Elul (the month before Rosh Hashana) he prepares an outline of all the important areas of his life: family, professional life, friends and relationships, religious, learning, etc. He then password-protects the document and saves it. No one has access to the document, not even his wife. He lists all his specific goals for next year: where he would like to improve, where he would like to continue to do well, what specifically he would like to achieve. In preparing for this, he reviews his outline from the previous year to help him take stock of how he did during the current year.

This is similar to the process I use, but with one huge improvement: it is in writing and can be a lot more detailed. It is easy for him to check on his progress during the year and in fact in subsequent years. But I had not written down my goals, and so I sometimes had a hard time remembering specifically what I wanted to do. And with password protection, it is safe. I am going to follow his lead this year and do the same.

The only thing surprising about his process was that he described himself as being somewhat intense and fanatical about all this. I got the sense from him that few people in his community do this kind of preparation for the holidays. Few people in my Conservative community do this type of preparation either, at least that I know of. But I think we all should do something along these lines. To borrow Tom Lehrer's line (and omit his simile): what we get out of these holidays depends on what we put into them. I am sure that we have all experienced boring and meaningless Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur services, where we walk out of synagogue and wonder why we went in the first place. Well, a little preparation now solves that problem then.

So let me leave people with two questions, one religious and one sociological:

What if anything do you or people you know do to prepare for the holidays?

How many people in your family or community prepare for the holidays in some serious way?

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