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Guest Column

In search of a meaningful life

The wisdom of the Jewish High Holidays


We have been asleep at the wheel. We concentrated on that which is of least importance. We have neglected the real meaning of life and the essence of our existence!

These are the types of themes that fill the High Holiday prayer book for Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. On Rosh Hashana, Jews celebrate the New Year of the Jewish calendar based on the anniversary of the creation of the world and of Adam and Eve.

On Yom Kippur, a few days later, there is a day of fasting and atonement. As such, it is a time of deep reflection as to what we, as individuals, and as a human community, are doing here. In other words, “What is the purpose of our existence?”

We realize that, during the rest of the year, we oftentimes go through the motions day by day without really thinking and without the deep introspection that is necessary in order to have a meaningful life. The Shofar, the ram’s horn blown on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, which makes a sacred and majestic sound, provides us with a powerful auditory experience meant to wake us up to the reality of our existence and our search for meaning.

We live in a complex world, and it seems that our lives only get more complicated on a daily basis. The wisdom embedded in Jewish tradition guides people, at least once a year, to be grateful for everything that we have and to ask for grace and blessings from God in the coming year.

To curry God’s favor, we promise to engage in a project of self-improvement, self-transformation and self-actualization. We look at our characters and our actions over the past year and ask: Could we have done something differently? Should we have done something differently? Do we owe someone an apology? Are there errors that we can still fix? How would we deal with similar situations if they present themselves in the future? Have we become the individuals and the society for which God placed us on Earth? Are we fulfilling our mission on Earth?

During High Holiday religious services, the prayers, blessings, confessions and affirmations are often said in the plural. “We have sinned” rather than “I have sinned.” This is done in order to unite us and help us to understand that we are all in this world — this often-strange reality — together. One affects another who, in turn, affects yet another. There is cause and effect in our world, so if we do something to someone or for someone, speak badly about someone behind his back or praise a person behind her back, each action will have repercussions upon the entire world and for generations to come. Therefore, we understand that every situation is an opportunity to cause pain or to repair a broken world.

Despite the seriousness and weightiness of some of the prayers and themes of the High Holidays, there is also an inspirational message: “Shanah Tovah U’metukah,” or “May it be a good and sweet New Year.” We are compelled to maintain a positive outlook toward the future and to believe in the promise of a better humanity and of a brighter tomorrow.

On behalf of the South Baldwin Jewish Center, I pray that God bless us all with a Shanah Tovah U’metukah, a good and sweet New Year.

Rabbi Royi Shaffin is the spiritual leader of the South Baldwin Jewish Center.