Kol Nidre and Star Gazing

By David Cohen

One of the things I like the most about this time of year in the Jewish Calendar is the way we are able to wrap some pretty important themes into a period of just a few weeks.  They are all important in their own right, but together, they serve to take us on a wonderful journey from the deeply personal to the wonderfully communal.

During Rosh Hashanah, a sweet, round Challah symbolizes the wholeness of life and the cyclical nature of time.  The braids of the challah we eat the rest of the year are separated and only intertwined.  Yet for the round Challah, the braids are literally brought together to form one singular entity – a complete, integrated, whole round challah. 

We wonder - If only we could be that complete, that whole?  If only we could bring together the segmentation and complexity of our daily lives? If only we could see life more for its many perfections and less through the lens of our many burdens and problems?   

And yes, there are many, many whole and possibly perfect parts of life.  Falling in love.  The birth of a child.  That child’s first words and first steps.  The many simchas and holidays we celebrate throughout the year like weddings, anniversaries, and birthdays.  These all bring out the wholeness of life that warrants our time-honored expression – L’chaim (to life!).

Even in the reflection that overcomes us when we experience the unfortunate death of a loved one – this too often has the power to bring wholeness as families come together to honor the memory of a life well lived.  In that reflection – don’t we often experience a Yom Kippur kind of moment?  During loss we are reminded so viscerally of family, love, and humorous stories we don’t tell enough of.  At these times, don’t we often take stock of living more in the moment?   

For me that is this wonder of what we term the “T’shuvah” of Yom Kippur.  This leap from the joyous wholeness of life to an acknowledgment of the brokenness of some parts of it – isn’t this what keeps us centered, grounded, and always striving to be one of those people who – when all is said and done – have many stories to be told about a life well-lived.

It is striking the way our entire community can move from wonderous personal wholeness, to purpose-driven introspection, to an exuberant appreciation for all that is good and great outside of ourselves during Sukkot.  The very concept of moving right from penitence to building the Sukkah in which we will gather with family and friends to gaze upon creation has always had deep meaning for me – and I know for many others, as well. 

During our high holidays – I certainly feel “in community” as we gather in synagogue and break the fast.   But I also feel a bit like it is meant to be individuals gathering next to each other, not “with” each other – mainly for some important personal work on themselves.  And then in an instant we are to fully embrace the external.  We fully engage with nature, invite others into our temporary shelters, gaze up at the stars, and wonder at the vastness of creation and the divine.   We celebrate the holy sustenance of the harvest, the brightness of the stars, and invite friends and family to join us in this very communal and public expression of connectivity with each other and creation. 

Some would say that during these weeks on our calendar we appreciate the wholeness, acknowledge the brokenness, and realize that we can only reconcile the two with the help of each other, the divine, and the natural world that sustains us from one season to the next. 

My personal prayer for our community is that once we begin taking down the sukkah – when we re-emerge into the “rest of the year” when all of our communal programming comes into your inbox, all at once – that we hold those multiple forces with us as much as we can.  An appreciation for the wholeness and an acknowledgment of the brokenness – all the while thanking each other and the divine for every day we have on this earth. 

L’Shanah Tovah U’metukah and Chag Sukkot Sameach!