I've never been a particularly observant Jew. When asked, I generally say that I'm not really a practicing Jew--I'm much more of an out-of-practice Jew. I haven't been to synagogue in....well...I don't know how long. Never had a Bar Mitzvah...never learned Hebrew...there's a huge list of the things I don't do. But I remain a part of the Jewish community through other organizations, and I think it's still a very important part of who I am. And when the High Holidays roll around, that's when I feel a little bit closer to my faith.
For those who aren't aware, the High Holidays in Judaism consist of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Rosh Hashanah is the Jewish new year, the anniversary of the creation of the world as described in the Torah. It's traditionally a day of sweet foods (apples and honey are the ones that are traditionally eaten), celebration, and family. The following ten days are known as the "Days of Awe", leading into Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. During those ten days Jews are instructed to think on their sins of the past year, repent and atone for them. G-d is said to pass judgment on Rosh Hashanah, but the books are kept open until Yom Kippur and we have that opportunity to get our names inscribed in the Book of Life. When the shofar blows at the end of Yom Kippur, our fates are sealed for the coming year. I think of it as the opportunity for Jews to hit the reset button if they need--to take a deep breath and start fresh. Yom Kippur is also a fasting holiday--no food or drink may be consumed from sunset to sunset (Jewish days are considered to begin at sunset and end at sunset--as is written in Genesis 1, "And there was evening, and there was morning, one day.").
All that background to say that Yom Kippur tends to be the holiday that I feel most strongly about. I've fasted on the holiday for a number of years now. I can't say that I know exactly why I do it when I don't follow numerous other traditions, but it holds importance for me.
Lack of food and drink for a day is interesting on multiple levels. It's a test in self-control, which I can proudly pass. I'm generally cranky, tired, and often have a headache by the end of the fast, but I've also accomplished a few other things in that time period. Distractions are important when the main thing you're thinking about is how many hours until you can eat again!
The fast is consistently a reminder of how good I have it. Every year, I make a donation to a food shelf shortly after the fast. I know that I'm lucky to be able to have all the food I have. Going hungry for a day isn't much, but it is a brief glimpse into what other people have to deal with on a regular basis. Buying a little extra food and making a donation is a small thing to me, but I know it can be big to someone else.
I also try and take that time to follow tradition and do a little "reset" on my life. It's a time to measure my strengths and weaknesses, look at the promises I've made versus the promises I've kept, and figure out what I can do to be a better man in the future. I'm very critical and realize that I have a long way to go. But I think that it's good to do. "The unevaluated life is not worth living" has always been a phrase that strikes home with me. The over-evaluated life is trouble, too...so I try to limit my evaluation to High Holiday time (it doesn't always work--but I try!).
I also take it as a time to see whether I'm enjoying my life and what I can do to make it more enjoyable. I find that I get distracted by small problems easily, and I can lose track of those things that I can do to keep myself healthy and happy.
So...as I hit the reset button on my life again for the year 5771, I hope (among other things) to be in better communication with friends, do more writing, get more exercise, and have more opportunities to improve myself as a person and to help those around me improve their lives.
L'shana tova (a good year) to all of you.