Monday, September 17, 2007

International Ask A Jew A Favor Week

To alter what they say on TV this time of year, "and to our non-Jewish friends..."

... we now take a slight detour into Judaism.

Last week was Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year.  Like the secular New Year, it is a time of celebration, and also one where we look ahead to the new year as an opportunity to make a fresh start.  We don't really make "Rosh Hashanah Resolutions" or anything like that, but we take a look at the last year, acknowledge the stuff we did wrong, and seek opportunities for improvement.

Now, this Saturday is Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.  This one comes ten days after Rosh Hashanah, and it's pretty much a time when we 'fess up to G-d (I don't write out the "G-word" as I was taught in Hebrew School that it's sort of related to taking the Lord's name in vain.  Which is to say, it would be somewhat wrong to write said word on a piece of paper that might find itself in a trash can.  I'm not really sure what sort of rules govern cyberspace, but I'll just go with the hyphen anyway.  I digress...)  Yom Kippur is when we 'fess up to G-d for the mistakes we've made over the past year.  And one is generally in a better position to apologize to one's divine power if one has one's ducks in a row with one's fellow humans.  So, in theory anyway, part of this week between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur is to be spent apologizing to -- and forgiving -- other people.

In practice, let's be real, we don't always do this.  (From a purely human-relations point of view, I kinda dig the concept.  I mean, it's like an "amnesty period" -- you KNOW that if you ask someone for forgiveness, it's their religious duty to forgive you (as long as you really mean it and all that).  It's nice, I think, that the faith provides this opportunity to clean the slate and start fresh with other people.  It may even be the case that the other people have wanted to mend fences, but haven't been able to find the way to broach the subject -- in which case this annual apologizing/forgiving thing is just giving some people a little push to say what they should be saying.  All that said, though, it is still insanely difficult to approach someone you wronged and apologize.)

Now, there's another aspect to the whole Rosh Hashanah/Yom Kippur thing -- and whether you want to look at it literally or as an allegory is sort of up to the reader.  The concept is that G-d writes everyone's fate for the next year on Rosh Hashanah -- but it isn't finalized until Yom Kippur.  (As we say in temple, "On Rosh Hashanah, it is written; on Yom Kippur, it is sealed.")  Now, we're not talking about G-d writing down what you're going to have for breakfast tomorrow.  We're talking about big things -- like being written "in the Book of Life" -- things that, even if you're a big believer in free will over predestination, you still think that maybe G-d or Fate (or something other than just the products of your own actions) would have a hand in.

In fact, the reason why we say that this stuff is written on Rosh Hashanah and is sealed on Yom Kippur isn't because we think, "Hey, G-d is fallible" and that he needs to take ten days to proofread his work and correct all mistakes.  Instead, we believe that OUR actions -- specifically, our actions over those intervening ten days -- can prompt G-d into CHANGING our fate.  Prayer, charity, good deeds, that sort of thing.

Which brings us to why I term this time of year, International Ask A Jew A Favor Week.  Because, even if we're not going to go so far as to hunt down people we've offended and apologize to them, even the largely-non-practicing among us won't turn down an opportunity to pick up some karma points right around now.  (On the "just in case" theory.)  It's almost like little kids a couple weeks before Christmas -- trying to be extra good because they know Santa is watching.  Except the stakes are a little higher than whether you're going to get that "Hello Kitty" CD player.

Last year at this time (I think it was last year), I was throwing groceries in my car in the store parking lot, and a woman came up to me and asked me to give her a jump start, 'cause her battery had died.  Now, I'm not a total idiot -- I did a quick evaluation of the safety of situation and calculated it to be relatively not risky -- but once that was out of the way, of course I helped her.  I even thought to myself, "Boy, lady, did YOU pick the right day to ask me for help."  Because the idea of my refrigeratables going warm in my trunk, or that I really wanted to be home to watch some TV show, sort of paled in comparison to the idea that maybe, just maybe, the Supreme Being is judging me based on what I do right now.  I don't know whether I would have helped her out had it been any other day -- I like to think that I would have -- but coming across a Jew on the way home from Rosh Hashanah services ... it's like hitting the Pay It Forward jackpot.

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