Circularity and Linearity … or Vice Versa

We are coming upon the Jewish High Holidays again. Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, begins at sundown on September 28 (the Jewish calendar is a lunar one, and days begin at sundown); ten days later is Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. The ten days between are known as the Days of Awe, when Jews are supposed to contemplate the past year and areas in which they have fallen short, resolving to do better with the coming year. It is also a time to seek forgiveness from those whom we think we may have wronged through our actions or inactions. Such apologies are meant to be given sincerely, and in turn we are commanded to accept such apologies sincerely offered.

I was thinking about the circular nature of our Jewish calendar as I flew home from Dallas to Kentucky, the yellow-green tobacco patches, the picket fences, and the ant-sized horses gamboling below. The browning of fields and just-turning leaves are harbingers of autumn just ‘round the bend,  as was the full harvest moon just a couple of days ago.

We seem focused on a linear, always-marching-forward in our culture, and yet it seems to be good to pause and reflect on the circular nature of time. In our temperate Eden of Kentucky, the browns, reds and yellows of autumn are followed by the white and grey of winter, after which the green and white of spring erupts, after which green summer comes. The never-ending cycle of renewal in our celebration and in our calendar should give us pause from the single-mindedness of linear pursuits, of the next job, the next task, the next duty. And yet, in the midst of such dedication, ambition, or dare I say obsession, the seasons of weather, of life, of even geologic time goes on. Winter follows autumn, mountains rise and fall, only to rise again over millennia. Perhaps we can take a certain comfort from such, realizing that a balanced view of linear progression and the circularity of time might enrich our lives. Yes, we have to work to survive, but yes, too, we have to celebrate the coming ‘round of celebratory seasons to truly live, just as we have to function as individuals, and yet to truly live, we must also acknowledge a whole greater than our individual selves, be that whole family, community, religion, or other entity. Balance and process, we must strive to live in that dynamic and healthy zone between the myth of American rugged individualism (which, let’s face it, never existed: we’ve always been interdependent upon one another in one context or another) on the one hand and being subsumed by the collective on the other.

So it’s the Jewish New Year, not the raucous celebration of the secular New Year, but an acknowledgment of the birth of the world. Following shortly thereafter, it’s the Day of Atonement, a day in which, examining ourselves, we realize that as individuals and as a community we have a long way to go, that it’s always process, and an end result is not forthcoming. That acknowledgement, however, does not give us license to abstain from constantly attempting to improve ourselves and our community.

Such were my thoughts as the plane descended to Bluegrass Field, to my Commonwealth of Kentucky. And even in the midst of celebrating the coming of the holidays, just around the corner from those holidays is my favorite Jewish holiday, Sukkot, the “Jewish Thanksgiving,” of which I’ll write later.

Let us celebrate linearity and circularity in our lives, both needing and leavening the other.

Pray as a 4-letter word

I was driving to Indianapolis to see my son Joe and his wife when I was struck by a rural Indiana church marquee that I sped past: “Pray is a 4-letter word that’s acceptable everywhere except in school.”

My two daughters, Colleen and Leslie, have taken me to task for using, “I mean, c’mon” as a logical argument, but once again I feel those three (? four) words coming to mind apropos of such facile “bumper sticker” church marquees. We have all been entertained by such witty marquees; however, the “Christian as beleaguered minority” in the heartland just won’t cut it with this Jewish boy, or as we East Tennessee natives are wont to say, “That dog won’t hunt.”

People can pray, whatever that means to them, anywhere and any time in this country. Period. No one’s stopping you. Not the government, not the principal. The old canard that removing prayer from schools is part of what caused the beginning of the decline of American civilization as we knew and loved it is a facile and tired argument. Struggle as I might with issues of faith, I murmur a blessing, aloud or silent, before many seemingly mundane acts; it’s what we Jews do, attempting to elevate the daily to the sacred. Christians, Muslims, and others can do so as well should they choose. Any where. Any time.

The marquee noted above is demagoguery. Nothing more, nothing less. To instill fear and resentment, consciously or unconsciously, amongst one’s congregants is to engage in low behavior and is not in keeping with the better aspects of our nature. Mixing schools and religion, unless said school is a parochial one, is fraught with difficulty and problems. It doesn’t seem that long ago that, when in public school sixth grade, a substitute teacher came to my class in Knoxville one day and made the two non-Christians in the class, myself and one self-proclaimed atheist, stand in front of the other students in order to be… mocked. Yes, a teacher, nominally a Christian, a member of the majority in that place and time, entrusted with young charges, invited their impressionable peers to make sport of two classmates who represented “the other” to her. We were not Christian; ergo, we were fair game.

We have progressed some since that day, yet we have a long way to go. Demogoguery and faux populism permeate our public discourse to this day. May those who are nostalgic for the “good old days” of [their version of] prayer in schools engage in the thought experiment of thinking about what they might feel were a view of the world they did not share imposed upon them in the public sphere. Indeed, the Hebrew verb “l’hitpalel,” “to pray,” literally means “to examine one’s self.” May those who wish to return to a halcyon past that never actually existed examine themselves for their true motivation, perhaps a nostalgia for lost youth, perhaps something else, and realize that prayer is available to all at any time of their choosing, and that imposing that view of prayer transmutes a potential realization and elevation of the soul into something else entirely: a cudgel.  Congregational life should be about community, a voluntary and not imposed bringing together of individuals into a whole greater than the sum of parts. Only then can a true community and self-examination from which to arise a better person occur.