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Sunday, October 02, 2005

Here's correct mind-set for Jewish holidays

Here's a fantastic piece for Rosh Hashana.

A few summers ago, just before the penitential Jewish holiday of Rosh Hashana, I walked on holy ground. I was not in Jerusalem, Rome or Mecca, or in any house of worship. Instead, I was in the quiet Pennsylvania town of Gettysburg. It was altogether fitting and proper that I was there during this contemplative period since this battlefield has a poignant message for repentant Jews. The lesson that a Gettysburg visitor taught me when I was there went beyond the sins of slavery or the tragedy of Civil War. He taught me how this hallowed ground can teach us to connect personally with an earlier time and place - the hidden mission of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur.

My Gettysburg tutor wasn't a wizened rabbi or a Judaic scholar. In fact, he wasn't an observant Jew at all, despite his beard and black hat. He never fasted on Yom Kippur. Why would he? He was a Christian. Although he wasn't particularly religious, he gave a spellbinding sermon to a Gettysburg crowd some time before my own visit there. Indeed, these few appropriate remarks delivered in the midst of the Civil War offer a spiritual pathway for repentant Jews to follow.

Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address, remarks that lasted just over two minutes, is properly in the pantheon of American oratory. He began his speech with the most famous opening of any speech in American history: "Four score and seven years ago . . ."

Wouldn't a more logical beginning have been, "We are here today to dedicate this cemetery to our brave fallen soldiers"? Lincoln, however, wanted his audience then, and us today, to look back in time. He wanted those who heard his words on Nov. 19, 1863, to connect back 87 years to 1776. The importance of Gettysburg to Lincoln transcended the battlefield before him. Its greater significance was its connection to the birth of the United States. By invoking the nation's independence, Lincoln transformed an ordinary dedication into an immortal event.

We Jews deeply understand the importance of connecting with our past. (We certainly have a lot more than four score and seven years to reflect upon!) During the Passover Seder, for example, we are commanded "to feel as though we personally went forth from Egypt." When our sons undergo circumcision, it is a link in a long chain that leads back to God's covenant with Abraham. On the Sabbath, we rest not merely to escape from a harried week, but to connect back to creation, when God rested after creating the world. In Judaism, our actions and thoughts are never in isolation, but are the upper branches of a tree that connect us back to our early roots.

Why is connecting back so critical during the Jewish High Holidays? True repentance requires time travel. As we reflect on our own sins, we must follow Lincoln's example and reach back into our history. We must try to connect with the Jewish people's greatest sin of all time - and with the repentance that rescued them. We must strive to touch the golden calf itself. After this colossal sin, the children of Israel saved themselves from destruction through passionate and painful repentance. Our aim today during the Jewish Days of Awe is to harness some of their lifesaving repentance for our own use. If we can spiritually connect with our ancestors' salvation at Sinai, then our High Holidays will become elevated and more profound.

During the 10 days of repentance from Rosh Hashana to Yom Kippur, Jews all over the world will pray for the year to come. We will pray for health and life. We will pray for peace and contentment. We will pray for joy and love. We will also pray fervently for forgiveness for our transgressions.

Who could compose a prayer that could accomplish all this? It would have to be a prayer that would join us with our biblical brethren to give our repentance strength and meaning. How might this supplication begin? My Gettysburg teacher, who knew something about sin and forgiveness, might have suggested, "Lord, 150 score and a few years ago, the children of Israel sinned grievously against you in the Sinai desert."

What else would we expect from a man named Abraham, a name given to him by his parents to connect him with the Old Testament patriarch, the father of the Jewish people?

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