We are well within the Days of Awe between Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur, where our tradition teaches that it is time to acknowledge past wrongdoings and look forwards with commitment to striving to be our best selves in the year ahead.
We all appreciate what a difficult year this has been. We have all been tested with worry about the future, fear of the unknown, frustration at the imposition of difficult restrictions and the narrowing of our lives as we have not been able to interact in person at school, at work and with family and friends.
At our school we can truly celebrate that as life has become increasingly challenging, our community spirit has elevated and our sense of empathy and of compassion have helped us to look after one another.
Yet despite all of this goodwill we have also all had our moments of anger, intolerance and schadenfreude that have come as base responses to the difficult circumstances that we are in. I do not wish to invalidate what are often appropriate, albeit negative, emotional responses. Anger, for instance, can be the force that drives us to fight for change and intolerance can be our way of standing in the face of mediocrity and refusing to lower our standards.
But as many of us take the opportunity to meditate on ourselves during this period, I am encouraged to be far more conscious this year about turning from the sources of this negativity and instead focusing on the things that bring me joy and light.
I, like many of us, have spent far too much time this year in my social media bubble laughing along as those who think like me, deride those who do not. There have been some very funny and witty moments that I would categorise as sophisticated social or political commentary. However, I have also been witness to many cruel and hypocritical ones totally lacking in consistency and fairness which are more reasonably categorised as bullying. It seems that in this online world we are so quick to judge and slow to forgive when the post refers to someone who is from a different political persuasion or background while we are often the opposite when the subject shares our views.
This tribalism is not a new phenomenon, but it is one that is cultivated in a world where we are increasingly able to curate who we interact with and what information we consume. This leads to decreased opportunity to listen to others and to grow when our own ideas and beliefs are challenged.
So for me, I aim in the new year to try to be more open-minded, to listen more actively to others and to try to prioritise authentic conversation over social media tidbits.
One of the most powerful pieces of liturgy that we recite at this time of year is the Unetaneh Tokef prayer. This was immortalised by Leonard Cohen in the song “Who by Fire”. In this dark prayer which lists the many ways we might die, we are also told that teshuvah (repentance), tefillah (prayer) and tzedakah (charity) can overturn our fate.
In a wonderful article in Tablet Magazine, Helen Plotkin explains the significance of reciting this prayer at this time: “For 10 days we are in intensive training on this point: Something will happen and we don’t know what. We are in a plot, and we don’t get to write it. We would very much like to be in control of our own lives, but the fact is we are not. The great joys and sorrows will happen largely without our consent. What difference, then, can teshuvah, tefillah, and tzedakah possibly make? Even if they don’t change the plot of your story, they do change your character. That is, they make you a more worthwhile character in your own story.”
For those of you who participate in introspection over the Days of Awe, I hope that you will find meaning in this process. You might take up Plotkin’s model and consider what it is that will make you a more worthwhile character in both your own and in our collective stories. I look forward to sharing in the coming chapter with you all.
Shabbat Shalom and G’mar Chatima Tova,