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The Spirit of the High Holidays Season

Religion: As Jews celebrate days of Awe and Atonement, perhaps others can share joy.

September 22, 1996|RABBI ARNOLD RACHLIS | Rabbi Arnold Rachlis is spiritual leader of University Synagogue in Irvine

Non-Christians are quite familiar with the meaning and observances of Christianity, especially at such pivotal moments as Christmas and Easter. While most of us refrain from celebrating Christmas, we welcome the spirit of the season. Even without taking these holidays as our own, non-Christians benefit from the holiday spirit by being reminded of similar values within their own traditions.

The Jewish High Holidays are now upon us. Many non-Jews know little about Rosh Hashana (New Year) and Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement) and perhaps nothing of their universal significance. Perhaps the themes of the Jewish High Holidays can inspire everyone by providing an opportunity for Jews and non-Jews to reflect on their own interpersonal behavior and values. Major themes of the High Holidays include:

Awe and Wonder: Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur are called "Yamin Noraim"--Days of Awe. We moderns who spend so much of our time debunking old myths and then creating new ones need to be reminded of the wonders of the universe.

Atonement: When did we last stop and consider our behavior to others--parents, children, spouses, colleagues and friends? Do we have the courage to repent, apologize, forgive ourselves and others? Now could be the time to begin.

Yom Kippur can be more than a Day of Atonement--it can be a Day of At-One-Ment as well, when we pull back from the mundane and the trivial and examine our lives. Are we at peace with ourselves? Are we proud of our work?

Repentance, Prayer and Charity avert the severity of life's final decree, that is, death. A person who isn't afraid to ask others for forgiveness nor too angry to forgive, who is involved with self-reflection and feels gratitude and who performs good deeds and is charitable gives life meaning.

Scripture: The Book of Jonah is read on Yom Kippur. Contrary to most people's assumptions, it's not a "fish story" or a "whale of a tale." Rather Jonah, the reluctant prophet, is commanded to rescue his people's enemies. The message is clear--not only are we morally responsible to save ourselves and our own ethnic or religious communities, but we need to commit ourselves to all the peoples of the world--even our foes.

Finally, among the great strengths of American society are religious pluralism and the separation of church and state. But separation need not mean a lack of awareness of the great insights that all the religions of our society have to offer. As Jews celebrate their days of Awe and Atonement, perhaps their non-Jewish neighbors and friends can share--each in his or her own way--the Jewish "joy of the season" with its spiritual insights and moral demands.

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