We’re in the middle of the Days of Awe, the 10 days between the Jewish new year (Rosh Hashana, or head of the year) and the day of atonement (Yom Kippur). As usual, warm weather settled in during the week, in what some still call Indian summer (why is that? a post for another day, perhaps), a typical sign of fall and the High Holydays. I love this time of year, and the chance to meditate on transitions and renewal. And I dutifully went to Erev Rosh Hashana services, though they were far from the norm for me.
I joined a colleague for services at a small Renewal congregation just north of Boulder. My take on Renewal is that it is a very lefty, liberal form of Judaism, and it seems less constricted, one might say, than Conservative or Reform versions, which are the services I would normally attend. Indeed, it seems downright woo-woo in some ways — but in such a delightful way! I can’t put my finger on it.
I do recall sitting with the congregation smiling like a madwoman during several points of the three different rabbis’ reflections. Perhaps one such grin was triggered by the easy use of “Her” for God by one rabbi. (How lovely and so 1980s feminist! It tickled me! In Swedish synagogue, it’s still Herr Gud.) Or watching my colleague play drums to accompany some of the songs. Or the ruminations of another rabbi on how we are at a turning point when it comes to thinking about climate and doing something about it. Or maybe it was the walking meditation in the midst of services, when all of us snaked around the synagogue space chanting and waving our arms in semi-yoga poses…
The two concepts that struck me hardest (indeed, as they were meant to do, as the dominant themes the rabbis revisited throughout this ceremony) were related to renewal — to new beginnings, to the new year. The first concept was shmitah: who knows how it’s really spelled, but it’s the seventh year of the new year cycle, and like the Sabbath is the seventh day of the week and meant for rest, so is this a year off, a sabbatical. Jews are directed to let their fields rest, to leave them untended and to let poor people harvest whatever grows there, and the animals as well. To forgive debts. To rest. To stop striving.
One rabbi has said that she will try to untether herself from the responsibilities represented by email and constant digital engagement. Another rabbi suggested thinking of this as a time for ourselves to let go of our self-made obstacles, to let go of saying “No” and to try to say “Yes.” Even though that is something perhaps seemingly antithetical to letting go of ambition and responsibility, I know exactly a few of the things that are my “Noes” to which I would like to say “Yes.”
So on the first full day of Rosh Hashana, I abandoned the synagogue and went out into the foothills for a hike, to be outside for my own favorite kind of spiritualism. My “No” that day was a steep rocky path called the Goat Trail. On the way up, the climb up vertical rock faces left me with my heart in my throat. I had thought I would wind around the park to avoid it on the way back home, but in the end, I turned back to the Goat trail and chanted to myself “just say yes!” all the way down. I was so thrilled to get down it in one piece unscathed, without a complete meltdown or freakout at the height and steepness.
I spent a lot of time on that walk thinking about what the third rabbi — the one convinced that we are at a turning point in the world, set to take care of it and stop our carbon-hungry ways — had said about setting about fixing the world. About taking care of the other. That was the second point, and “mending the world,” or Tikkun Olam, is a spiritual trope that often accompanies the High Holydays — the world was once made of vessels that held in the light and shattered, and we are left to pick up the pieces, fixing piece by piece.
One of the usual calls in synagogue around this time of year is for donations of canned food for the local food closet, or for donations to the food charity Mazon. On Yom Kippur, the day we fast, we are to feed the hungry. The statistics are startling from Mazon: “1 in 6 Americans can’t be sure if or when they’ll have their next meal.” Food is so cheap in the US, it’s difficult to imagine how people cannot afford it; Swedes pay a lot of money for their food, but I am not sure how to find out how many can’t afford it. Perhaps the FAO or the UN have data on this, but even counting the most hungry in the world can be hard to do.
But I have never been asked to donate to a food closet or charity in Sweden, not at the High Holydays, nor any other time. I suppose one irony here is that Swedes immigrated in huge numbers to the US in the 1800s because they were starving, poor farmers living on land that could not support them. Those Swedes made up a large number of the immigrants to the Midwest, who eventually became the farmers in the American bread basket.
How muddled it all is, the global interconnections. Americans use so much material wealth in the world and spew the most carbon, behind China — what changes we have wrought and are yet to come.
I wasn’t alone that day on the trails — I saw perhaps 50 other people, mostly women, walking along the paths up there above Boulder, together talking, or with dogs, or completely alone. I thought a lot about the people able to take time out in the middle of a weekday to fill their eyes with semi-wild spaces. How lucky we are. Charmed, even. We don’t have to worry about our next meals, or getting clean water to drink. We have other concerns of course, but the phrase “first world problems” floated through my mind many times that day.
On my bike ride up the steep city streets to get to that challenging Goat path, I passed sprawling graceful homes in pooled shade, tended by gardeners and construction workers, peaceful in the hot morning sun. How lovely. How selfish. I thought about the material wealth that we Americans have lucked into, at least some of us. We flaunt it. We glory, almost, in the differences in wealth between those with the most and those with the least. The poverty in America is striking to me after being in Sweden, where wealth inequality is much less and the wealth itself much less obvious.
What could that wealth do for the several billion people on the planet living in poverty? Perhaps you are thinking, wow, I am spouting Swedish socialism! Redistribute that wealth!
But really, why not? Why not help a little? We are all humans, unique and yet similar, and each as deserving as the next to live and thrive. And yet, by luck and chance, we are born into safety and grace, or into inequality and desperation.
I am very bad at giving money, and even worse at giving time. I will not make a difference in the world at a large scale with the work I am doing now. We will see what I choose to do in the future. This week, I will pack a grocery bag full of canned food and take it to services for Yom Kippur. And then go hiking in the mountains.