The Jewish New Year, called Rosh Hashanna, is fast approaching. At this time of year, many Jews write New Year’s greetings to one another – analogous to the cards non-Jews send out around December 25th. Rebecca and I don’t follow the usual custom. Instead, we send out an annual Yom Kippur greeting. Yom Kippur is the Day of Atonement, a very solemn holiday which follows Rosh Hashanna. This year marks the tenth year that I written and sent out a Yom Kippur greeting. If you’re getting this and can’t remember who we are, don’t worry. We cast the net pretty wide. Recipients of this email include friends, co-workers and acquaintances and even those we’re sorry we haven’t had a chance to keep up with in the past year. Our greeting follows:
A bent old man is walking down a dirty road in a old city. He walks slowly and deliberately, making his way over cobblestones slick with rain. He seems deaf to the calls of small-time merchants hawking goods from rundown stalls that line the road. He seem oblivious to the old buildings whose 3 or four stacked floors seem to totter over the roadway, closing off the sky as they lean inwards. The man seems to ignore it all. Instead, he walks slowly, deliberately, with a huge iron key swinging from his belt.
He pushes his way up the road, finally coming to a small building – more of an old house really, struggling for air amongst its taller brethren. The old man places his key into the door and steps inside. There is no rain inside, but the air feels damp. The floor is of dirt, and the walls are of raw wood and they both seem impregnated with the moisture that surrounds them. The building is beautiful. But not in a way that most people would notice. There is no gold, there are no minimalist lines. There is only a hall, and at the end of it, a staircase. A staircase made of hand carved wood, worn down by centuries of use and of love. The old man climbs the staircase, doubling back at a landing and arriving at a second hallway, above the first. This one seems dryer. The wooden walls are finished, and painted with images that have faded with the passage of time. There is a small window, a round window, at the end of the hall. Its light showcases the dust in the air.
The old man shuffles down the hall – towards its only door. He arrives there and his weathered hand reaching down and turns the handle. As the door opens, he is greeted by an incredible light. Inside, there are old dented tables and there are old sagging chairs. But more than anything, there is light – an incredible white light which overwhelms everything.
But the old man is not blinded. He is home. His back straightens as he walks through the doorway and disappears into the light.
*** I’m not going to interpret the above story. Except to tell you that the old man is not dead. But I will say a few words related to it. This past week there was a wedding here in Portland. It was an incredible wedding. Not for the meal (which was wonderful), or for the seamless organization (which was entertaining), but for the spirit. There is a Jewish belief (probably shared by other religions) that a bride has special powers on her wedding day. She is enveloped in a holy spirit and can grant blessings to others with a power that she would otherwise lack. This bride did that. And with an aura that amazed those who were lucky enough to witness it, or benefit from it. And in an odd circumstance, it was a rainy day. The sun hadn’t been seen the entire day. But this bride had wanted a wedding under the stars. So, despite the threat of rain, the wedding went ahead – outdoors. And, amazingly enough, the rain stopped, the clouds cleared, and the stars came out.
The wedding, and the bride and groom, were imbued with a spirit of G-dliness that is tremendous to experience. Despite any outward complications, despite a hard road to the chupah (wedding canopy), they were blessed with an incredible holiness on their wedding day. The next day, the community’s Rebbetzin (Rabbi’s wife) wished them a life in which they would experience the Shechinah (holy spirit) in their home in the years that lie ahead. And that thought struck me. The experience of the Shechinah in a home is hard to explain. But it can be there – particularly on the Sabbath. In a blessed home, there is a spirit of warmth and of light that nothing physical could supply. Creating such a home, however, is not a simple matter. A family, particularly a man and his wife, must live all aspects of their life in a way that seeks to conform with G-dliness. For a Jewish family, this means struggling to improve their adherence to Halacha (Jewish Law) and, through Halacha, improving their relationships with G-d and with their fellow man.
Rosh Hashanna (the Jewish New Year) is a time for measuring our progress. We look at our actions over the past year, our interactions with G-d and our interactions with man, and we pinpoint our shortcomings, pray for forgiveness, and arm ourselves with the tools needed for improvement in the coming year. Of course, we can’t pray to G-d to forgive us for sins against our fellow man. He can’t grant us forgiveness. Those we have hurt, with a few exceptions, are the only people who can forgive us. And so, before Yom Kippur, we ask for mechilla (forgiveness) from those we have hurt, or might have hurt.
And that brings us to this message.
This past year, for whatever reasons, I have been particularly short-tempered and impatient. It has had a bad effect. It has deprived our home of the feeling of holiness that it has often had in the past. But it is something that can be fixed going into the future. However, before the future comes, the past has to be addressed. So, we (Rebecca and I) want to ask your forgiveness for those times in which we might have hurt you, intentionally or otherwise, known or not, in issues great or small – in any way at all. This doesn’t mean you have to agree with our actions, it simply means that you won’t harbor personal resentment for what we’ve done to wrong you. If you could send us an email, granting us that forgiveness, that’d be great. And, in turn, we would like to extend our forgiveness to any of you who may have hurt us – intentionally or otherwise, known or not, in issues great or small – in the past year. We would also like to thank you for the many kindnesses you have extended to us.
Finally, to paraphrase a Jewish prayer which we say every month, we would like to wish you all a year of goodness and of blessing, of gladness and of joy, of comfort and of wealth, of health and of success. A finally, we would like to wish you a year of G-dliness and of light.
Joseph and Rebecca