This week, our Jewish brothers and sisters will be commemorating and celebrating the meaningful days of faith in Rosh Hashanah, September 6-7 and Yom Kippur, September 15-16. At sunset on September 6, the shofar, or ram’s horn, will summon the faithful to their synagogues for prayer to begin the religious new year prayer service. Families will have eaten a celebratory meal which includes apples and honey, (for a sweet new year) and round challah, a braided bread baked in the round, a symbol of the cyclic blessings of God. Rosh Hashanah commemorates the creation of the world and marks the beginning of the Days of Awe, a ten-day period of introspection and repentance that culminates in Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. Scholars estimate that Rosh Hashanah may have been established by 6 BC and certainly was part of the traditions Jesus followed. It asks the believer to reflect on what he or she may do to spiritually create a fruitful year ahead; thus, it is not the raucous celebration the secular New Year offers every January 1. It celebrates the birthday of the world.
Yom Kippur is a day of fasting as one recalls the sins he or she may have committed during the past year. Some Jews will practice tashlich, the custom of throwing pieces of bread on flowing water signifying the tossing of one’s sins into the forgiveness of God who washes them away. I particularly like this tradition and have done it myself during these days. Most Jews will go to people they have offended and ask for forgiveness. Jews will attend services in the synagogue participating in rituals of renewal, forgiveness, freedom, and joy. Then they return to their home and break the fast with a feast of traditional foods.
These High Holy Days are the ancestry of our Christian feasts as well. The more you read or study authentic Old Testament scholarship (now called the Hebrew Scriptures), the more you will understand where Jesus absorbed his depth of understanding of God’s love, compassion, and forgiveness. It is a commendable exercise to be conscious of the beauty and spirituality of these days and put them in our own prayers for a more just, loving world.
My dear late friend, Sandy, and his brother, carried a burden of a sister who had done something loathsome to them. They carried that hurt for years but now the sister was in a nursing home and failing. In the meantime, the Ursuline Sisters of Cleveland were protesting against the death penalty sure to be the sentence of a young man who had murdered one of their sisters. They were deeply grieving the loss of their sister but also grieving for the mentally unstable young man who killed her and was about to have his own life terminated. They protested against the death sentence, his in particular. Carried signs outside the courthouse. Gathered petitions. Worked day and night pleading for the man’s life. Their acts caught the attention of the media and Sandy saw the protest on television right before Yom Kippur. He persuaded his brother to go with him to the nursing home and confront their sister—not with chastisement or righteous anger—but with the simple statement: “We forgive you.” On Yom Kippur, these two elderly Jewish men embraced their sister in a nursing home and offered forgiveness. That is the true meaning of these High Holy Days: a huddle awash in tears and the forgiveness of God through human courage. Sandy later told me that the actions of the Ursuline Sisters in forgiving the murderer of their own sister was the inspiration he needed to say, “We can forgive our sister.” And so they did.
I invite you, my readers, to join our Jewish friends this week in observance of the High Holy Days. You will feel the palpable blood that connects our two faiths. The psalms in the Hebrew Scriptures offer much you can use for prayer and reflection. In the Christian Scriptures (New Testament), you can look for the narratives on forgiveness that Jesus taught his followers. Take silent time to reflect on these passages. I suggest you have your own copy of one of these two reputable and scholarly Bibles grounded in Catholic interpretation: The Jerusalem Bible or my favorite, The New American Bible. The latter is more portable for carrying to scripture classes or prayer groups.
May each of you, my faithful readers and my Anonymous Angels, find meaning and peace in praying for the tremendous needs of our world and for peace and reconciliation in your own seeking hearts.