With the introduction of the month of Tishrei Jews across the world celebrate the start of their New Year. Admittedly, it didn’t assume a particularly festive form. We didn’t hit the bars the way New Yorkers do on January 1.
Nor did we parade down the streets with a massive paper dragon as they do in Beijing.
And no, we didn’t even have a Buddha- themed citywide water fight the way the Thai have on Songkran.
What did we do? Well, we prayed and repented.
True, it doesn’t sound all that fun, and I won’t pretend that I enjoy it as much as Judaism’s more festive holidays, which offer a lot more celebration, singing and dancing. But what I can say about the first month of the Jewish year is this: it’s beautiful. Beautiful, because on these days we re-commit to our relationship with God, drawing ourselves ever closer into his divine embrace.
But the High Holy Days are not meant to be moments where we wallow in sin and feel ourselves to be spiritually inadequate.
Judaism has no concept of original sin or of humanity perpetually falling short, concepts that are central to Christianity.
Would anyone really imagine that on the three holiest days of the year God wants us to see ourselves as worms who can do nothing right? Having been taught to see these days as ones of love and joy, I try to teach others to see them that way, too.
Still, there are those who see it differently.
In an op-ed published recently in The Wall Street Journal, the former chief rabbi of England, Lord Jonathan Sacks, offered a more rigid conception of the Jewish High Holy Days. The question posed by these holidays, writes Rabbi Sacks, is not about how we prove our own faith in God, but rather, how God continues have faith in us.
The Jewish High Holy Days, he argues, are less days of holy love than of holy judgment.
They present “a courtroom drama like no other,” one where “the judge is God himself” and “we are on trial for our lives.” Stranger than the idea of Judaism’s holiest moments being only about trial and judgment is the fact that we may be found guilty. After all, “in an otherwise law-governed universe, we are able to break the law – a power that we too often relish exercising.” And so, all we can do is ask God to forgive us. Which he does, because He’s God, and He always gives another chance.
Thus, Rabbi Sacks argues, these days prove God’s incredible faith in us despite our “shabby and threadbare moral record.”
Shabby and threadbare? Find me one nation more devoted to God throughout history than the Jewish People. Find me one nation that has stuck with God despite pogroms, autos-da-fé, expulsions, inquisitions, ghettoization, non-stop persecution, and ultimately the Holocaust. Find me a people that continues to honor Shabbat, put on tefillin, affix mezuzot, keep kosher, marry Jewish, build synagogues, go to mikveh, even after their parents and grandparents were turned into ash at Auschwitz.
Find me a nation like the State of Israel that honors the complete rights of its 1.5 million Muslim citizens in the heart of the Jewish state? Find me an army that is more moral than the IDF, despite having genocidal enemies completely encircling them.
What threadbare moral record? The very idea is a calumny.
Sure, we can be sinful. And the fact that God forgives us for our sins deserves our humble recognition and gratitude.
But there’s another question we ought to ask: have we really been that bad? I imagine some of us might have fudged the lines of Judaism’s dietary laws. Perhaps we didn’t wait six hours after eating meat before putting milk in our coffee. Some may not have prayed with full concentration.
Others might not have prayed at all.
On the micro level, we are not without our errors.
But on the wider spectrum, at the macro level, the Jewish people have shown a faith in God more fervent and formidable than any commitment ever held by man or all mankind toward anything at all.
We suffered two brutal centuries of slavery in Egypt, and still circumcised our sons.
We watched twice as our holy Temples burned, and still our love of Judaism kept burning. We were marched off to Rome as slaves, but never forgot our true master above. For nearly two millennia afterward, we lived scattered throughout Europe, Africa and Asia, always as second-class citizens subject to relentless oppression and blood libels. And still, our own blood ran strong with a devotion to our faith and our fellow man.
In 1492, when forced to publicly abandon our faith, we preferred to board our families onto ships rather than follow the impossible Spanish orders to abandon our faith. In the 17th century, the Jewish People would witness as many as half a million of their brethren put to the sword by the Polish warlord Bogdan Khmelnitsky. Remarkably, what followed was a popular explosion of religious love and zealotry, with millions of Jews taking upon themselves a new enthusiasm for God and Judaism in what we now call the Hassidic Revolution.
And never has Jewish commitment to God been so brilliantly displayed as it is today, where, just a generation after the Holocaust, we’ve continue to march forward with love for and pride in our identity as Jews across the world and in our own state.
The untouchable faith in God held by his people is, in my opinion, at least as impressive as God’s faith in us. Indeed, it is as impressive as the wonders of all God’s creation – the completion of which we just commemorated.
So this year, let’s celebrate our Jewishness more with love than with fear, more joy than with dread. Let’s experience Jewish grandeur rather than Jewish inadequacy, Jewish light rather than a fraudulent belief in Jewish defectiveness.
Enough of Jewish self-hatred. The Jewish People have been the great light of humanity for 3,300 years. And it’s time we recognized and celebrated it.
So, now, with Sukkot upon us, let’s celebrate more with love than with fear, more joy than with dread. If, after everything we’ve been through as a people you’ve still made it to the synagogue, God knows, you’re pretty damned amazing.
The author, whom The Washington Post calls “the most famous rabbi in America” is the founder of The World Values Network and is the international best-selling author of 31 books, including The Israel Warrior. Follow him on Twitter @RabbiShmuley.