Each year IFFP hosts interfaith High Holy Days services, starting with Rosh Hashanah and ending with Yom Kippur. You might ask, “what makes a service “interfaith?” It means we curate a safe space for families from multiple faith traditions to celebrate their holidays together where everyone can feel truly welcome and valued. It means we come together and embrace our practices and learn about what we have in common, not just what makes us different. At this year’s Rosh Hashanah evening service, Rabbi Debbie and Rev. Sam had an interesting dialogue about resolutions, forgiveness, and what each of these means in our different faith traditions.
If you’re unable to watch, below is a transcript of their conversation:
Rabbi: Happy New Year! New year’s resolutions can be fun to make, but hard to keep.
Rev: And Rabbi Debbie, you and I had fun looking up some of the most unusual resolutions people are making these days.
Rabbi: Here are some of our favorites that we found:
- Relearn social cues after nearly two and 1/2 years of a pandemic.
- Turn all my high heel shoes into flats.
- Pick movies on Netflix swiftly and decisively so that, you know, I can actually hit play before falling asleep.
Rev: The list goes on…. Never take running errands for granted – ever again.
Rabbi: Do so much yoga that it actually justifies wearing yoga pants 24/7.
Rev: Manage to go the entire year without accidentally telling someone random on the phone “Love you” as the call ends.
Rabbi: Eat more tacos.
Rev: Use more chapstick.
Rev: Remember to unmute.
Rabbi: When meeting with friends, stop telling the same jokes- or even better, make some new friends.
Rev: So, with all these resolution “gems” in mind, I am wondering if you are feeling inspired for Rosh Hashanah. Rabbi Debbie, are you making any resolutions this year?
Rabbi: Actually, Reverend Sam it’s interesting that you should ask, there is more of a tradition of resolutions around Rosh Hashanah than in the turn of the secular year.
Rev: How is that so?
Rabbi: We’ll, technically starting today, but actually starting almost a month ago, Jews entered a period of transformation. The Hebrew word for atonement is Teshuva, and the root of the word is lashuv – to return. The presumption is that atonement is changing course, putting oneself back on the right path.
Rev: Oh like that song we sing… “Return again, return again, return to the home of your soul….”
Rev: So, let me get this right – these resolutions are about trying to return to your best self, to be a better person?
Rabbi: Well, yes. But, we are also trying to be a better society. That’s why next week during Yom Kippur we have all the confessions in plural. The assumption is that any one of us as an individual may or may not have sinned, but as a society, the odds change drastically.
Rev: That’s interesting, you know confession is an essential aspect of the Christian tradition as well. In fact, in many churches, a “prayer of confession” is said in unison at the start of each service.
Rabbi: Not exactly a surprise since these traditions have such an intertwined history, but how did this come to be?
Rev: Well as you know, throughout his life, Jesus was a practicing Jew and thus spoke about repentance through a Jewish lens – for a mostly Jewish audience. He taught those who followed him about the critical importance of acknowledging their shortcomings and need for God – in order to turn their lives around (to return again). He wasn’t afraid to call people out – like that time he famously flipped the tables in the temple when people were using their house of prayer to buy and sell and go wild. His stories – these colorful parables – painted pictures about the value of second chances and forgiveness, and served as warnings to those with power to not be blinded by their possessions. Instead, by word and example, he encouraged people to humble themselves, to reflect upon where they were going wrong, to repent, and live anew. At the same time, he taught that it is in the goodness of our hearts, the ways in which we extend love, our faithfulness, and devotion to God, our care for humanity – that will truly enrich our lives, even set us free.
Rabbi: It sounds like Jesus was living the Golden Rule, as he would have been taught to do. As you know, it is formulated as “love your neighbor as yourself,” in Leviticus and rephrased by Hillel – who happened to be a contemporary of Jesus – as “What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow.” But, up to this point repentance and atonement, at least in the Jewish world, were also closely tied to Temple worship –even though it was, by then, in decline. Hillel and the other rabbis of the Talmud were already well on their way to creating the Judaism we know today – based on law and philosophy and a personal relationship with God, not controlled by priests or other intermediaries. In this light, repentance and atonement were being internalized as personal and private conversations with God (or one’s conscience).
So what did all Jesus’ teachings about repentance look like after his death – when the Christian tradition began taking shape?
Rev: The Christian faith that began to emerge out of a Jewish context and evolve after Jesus’s death and Easter morning carried these atonement messages on: “we are broken and in need of mending,” “the world is broken and together, with God’s help, it can be fixed.” Those who came to believe that Jesus was the Messiah believed that he was the ultimate sacrifice – his life, death, and resurrection story, made individual and collective forgiveness possible. And still, there were others who believed that it was his living example and radical teachings that were the most vital – especially, his emphasis on dedicating one’s life to lifting up the most vulnerable in society – the forgotten ones who God dares to call beloved.
Rabbi: This may be a bit weird, but the phrase “made forgiveness possible” is really sticking with me. It is one of the hardest things we are asked to do. During these days of Awe (the days between today and Yom Kippur), it is a Jewish custom to actively seek out all of our friends, relatives, and acquaintances and speak this formula, “If I have acted in some way, whether intentional or not, that has caused you harm, I offer my repentance and seek your forgiveness.” That’s making it sound fancy, but any variation will do. But, then comes the hard part. When someone comes to you saying this, it is your responsibility to grant that forgiveness. Both sides of this coin are really hard! Having the guts to admit to hurting someone, and then finding the strength to forgive, as well. But, we make it an annual ritual.
So what does seeking forgiveness look like for Christians today?
Rev: It can look a number of different ways. Today, there are so many Christian denominations, each with their own perspective and style. Like I mentioned earlier, in Catholic and Protestant churches you might hear a prayer of confession said together at the start of a service every week. This prayer is an acknowledgment of the ways we each AND we all inevitably fall short. We express our regret and longing to be forgiven and to live better. This prayer is often directly followed by a prayer that says that through God’s grace, God’s love, God’s mercy – we are forgiven. Some Catholics in our IFFP families might also go “to confession,” where they speak directly with a priest or religious leader about their shortcomings and hunger for forgiveness. For many Christians, to be forgiven does not mean that you then get to sit back and relax. Rather, to repent and be forgiven, is part of a larger calling that connects us back to those ancient roots and teachings you and I are talking about: it’s a cry to get to work, to be God’s hands and feet on earth, to never stop striving to shape the society around us for the better.
Rabbi: This is so interesting Rev. Sam. It seems like both religions acknowledge that being good is hard and that success is an uphill climb – but, that we need to try anyway.
Our actions in the here and now need to be seen through the lens of not only is this good for “me,” but is it good for “us.” In today’s world, this seems of paramount importance.
My apologies to you and everyone around me don’t count for much if I don’t follow through on trying not to be hurtful again. And, my forgiveness won’t be of much use if I don’t believe that others can change for the better. And, that’s just on a personal level.
On a global scale, I need to think differently: I may live in a place where clean water is easily available, but millions of people in this world do not. I have to consider that in my water usage–it is a limited resource. I may live in a place that allows me to speak my mind, but millions of people in this world do not. I have to think about them and what they would be saying if they could. I may live in a world where bullets aren’t whizzing past and bombs are not falling out of sky, but millions of people do not. I have to worry about them, I have to do things that protect them, too.
These are REALLY BIG issues. But, the smaller ones are important, too. Our local community suffers from food insecurity, from inadequate housing, from violence, and corruption, and more. Even more locally, in our homes, we may act unfeelingly or unintentionally cruel. Even (or maybe especially) here we need to catch ourselves, apologize, and take steps to fix things. It is good for those around us, and it shows us the path to forgiveness. For repentance. For t’shuva – for turning ourselves around to be better and to be better for the world.
Rev: You know what, I am glad we get opportunities like this to learn and hear from one another. And now you’ve got me thinking…looking around the room and into our Zoom room, I wonder what resolutions we want to take on this year as individuals? How about as a community, and as an interfaith community? I wonder where and how we can better embody “the Golden Rule” and “love” of the deepest sort – that which can be a vital thread in helping us mend the larger world. And speaking of this….Rabbi, I have to ask, do you have a resolution for this year?
Rabbi: Other than eating more tacos? Yeah, I do, Reverend. This Rosh Hashanah, I resolve to take steps – little steps, bigger steps, maybe even big steps, to make this world a better place. I’ll give to charity. I’ll say kind things. I’ll recycle more. I will practice the patience I preach. I will do better. And, next year – I’ll do the same. I hope we all will. Repetition doesn’t mean we failed, it means we’re returning to the path. . . after all we are bound to stray.