Seeking The Gem Inside
I don’t pretend to fully understand the impact of the Yamim Noraim (High Holidays) upon me or anyone else. It does seem to me that people, Jews and non-Jews alike, recognize that this is a special time of year. For instance, at home in West Caldwell, I often stop off at a local Convenience store for coffee. I am reasonably certain that the person behind the counter is not Jewish, and yet he wished me a Happy New Year last year between Rosh Hashanah and offered that I have an easy fast on Yom Kippur. No need to do it, but he did and, in truth, it made me feel good and, strangely, it made me feel connected.
That a person I hardly knew should helped me to feel connected initially surprised to me, but upon further consideration, it is often contact with strangers that brings us closer to ourselves; closer to community; closer to God.
Two years ago, just before the holiday, I led a Rosh Hashanah service at a local assisted living community. Though the community is not Jewish, it has a number of Jewish residents and its chaplain had reached out for someone to do a short service for them. In speaking with the community, the decision was made to have a one hour service in a private dining room that would be immediately followed by a nice dinner of chicken or brisket. I explained how the room should be appointed; White linens, candles, kosher wine, a big round Challah, and a tray with apples and honey. God sent an emissary in the form of a lovely resident who, without being asked, went to the room early to make sure it looked good. She even brought her own shofar, Mahsor (Rosh Hashanah Prayer book), and a beautiful silver Kiddush Cup that she had received on her wedding day.
So perfect was the setup that as one woman walked in she said, “This is the first time it has looked like Rosh Hashanah here!” Indeed, the smiles on the faces of the 25 residents as they walked in wearing their finest clothes, was incredibly warming. As we went through the
high points of the Rosh Hashanah liturgy, from the Shema, to Avenu Malkeinu, to Hayom, to the Shofar service, to discussing the story of the binding of Isaac, the congregation was engaged; reading, singing, and asking questions with vigor and joy. As they ate dinner, I had several individual conversations during which I learned personal stories of Rosh Hashanah’s past, children, grandchildren and great grandchildren, and hopes for the future.
Before the service, the residents did not know me, nor I them. I entered not knowing what to expect, with a hint of trepidation. I left with a feeling of renewal and increased energy. This, it seems to me is what this time of year is about. As we go to services, we feel a bit uncomfortable; experience some fear, encounter some uncertainty. But in the end, as we are leaving shul, there is air in our lungs; a new energy in our step; an ability to look forward to the wonderful possibilities of a year to come.
While it is nice to help others to connect with their communities, their families, and God, the gift of the High Holidays is not only this, nor is it the brisket and soup and the gefilte fish. (Though I suspect none of us would ever turn them down). The present that is wrapped, not so neatly, is the necessity to look at ourselves closely; performing a “mensch” exam. What have I done right? What could I have done better? Each of us is flawed, but each of us also has a valuable gemstone inside of us.
Chip away at the bad, polish the good, and help the person next to you chip and polish as well.
G’mar Chatima Tova – May we all be inscribed for a year of health, fulfillment, and peace.
Rabbi Michael S. Jay