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The Days of Awe: What is it to suffer?

These are the Days of Awe. To my non-Jewish friends, that’s not just a new phrase for these strange times, but the words that describe the next 10 days of Jewish life as we usher in the Jewish new year. I know most of us are ready to say goodbye to 2020, but before we do, I’d like to offer my own thoughts to be added to the many sermons being delivered in virtual temples around the world.

In Jewish tradition, you are inscribed into the book of life at the new year: “On Rosh Hashanah it is written, on Yom Kippur it is sealed.” The Days of Awe are the days that fall in between. These are important days. They do not idly pass by; they are filled with the business of making right. In addition to going to services and saying prayers, during the Days of Awe you are commanded to apologize, to own up to whatever trouble you’ve gotten into in the past year. And it’s not enough to say “sorry” into the thin night air, you must apologize to the person you hurt. And they, in turn, must forgive you.

As my religious side gives way to my spiritual side, this is one tradition that I will always love. It is a personal reckoning that has global implications. Imagine if we could all truly be so brave as to say, “I’m sorry,” and “I forgive you,” and really mean it. Imagine if we could be so brave as to see that we are the cause of someone else’s pain. The alternative to this bravery is one that most of us, whether we like it or not, are content to live with. We keep on hurting, making the same mistakes, remaining oblivious to the pain we cause or perhaps, more likely, suffering because of it.

I heard someone define suffering as “pain met with resistance.” Pain is a fact of life, but suffering is a choice, and right now we are suffering because of our resistance to the painful truths of our world. I say we, because we are a collective body — this nation, this world, bound together by an invisible and essential connective tissue: the very air we breathe.

For those who doubt this connection, the proof is coming into view, developing like a photograph from a negative as clear skies turn smokey grey. Our every breath has been poisoned by the refusal to face the painful truths of climate change, inequality, racism, and the truth that compassion is better than callousness.

Wildfires fill the air with smoke, not just above burning forests but above houses thousands of miles away.

Maskless people fill the air around them with a halo of death, and if not death, at least the fear of it.

And beyond those literal threats, the air is filled with tension and hatred as we argue and clash over the concept that every human being is worthy of equal respect.

Like the Days of Awe, the space between us is not empty, it it is full of the very threads that weave us all together. If we choose to care for each other, we can make each breath a gift. If we ignore our role as stewards of the earth, and our commandment to love thy neighbor as thyself, we will continue to poison our shared atmosphere both literally and figuratively. We cannot ignore these painful truths, or we will continue to suffer. And I say we, because we are a collective body, connected by our every breath.

So, what do we do? How do we end our suffering?

We must remember the purpose of pain. Pain tells us there is a problem. Pain demands our attention. Pain is the alarm bell ringing out for a care, for help, for action. Pain is how we end our suffering because its very purpose is to demand that we do.

So how do we make it right again? How do we inscribe this collective body into the book of life for a good year, a sweet year? For a good future, a viable future?

We face climate change, racism, inequality and, as the prayer book says “an alphabet of sins” head on. We admit that we are flawed. We ask for forgiveness not with empty words, but with deliberate actions. Not with an apology whispered into the thin night air, but with deliberate and real measures to become the change we seek.

Thankfully, we have a perfect opportunity for just such a transformation: an election.

This is your chance to cast your vote, to reckon with painful truths, to face them bravely, to take action.

If you do nothing else this year (whether its 2020 to you, or 5781) please take this opportunity for action. Please, please vote.

If you’re not sure where or how or when, is a non-partisan resource with state-by-state voting guides.

May this new year be a sweet year, even as it is filled with pain.

L’shanah Tovah,


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