Holy day rites of passage help us find meaning in our lives

September 24, 2006|By Arthur J. Magida

"Sh'ma Yisrael Adonai Elohaynu Adonai Echad."

"Hear, oh Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One."

That one sentence is the essential, elemental creed of Judaism. But what God is that? A Christian God? A Jewish God? A Muslim God? A Hindu God? (Although it may be more correct to say, Hindu gods, because Hindus have hundreds of thousands, maybe even several million gods.) I'm certainly not talking about a Buddhist God, as God has no place in Buddhism.

Everyone, in every faith, approaches God in his own time and his own fashion. Whether there is one god or many gods or no god, a la Buddhism, every faith has a moment when we are brought into the fold, into the tent, into the wisdom and the practices and the duties of being a member of that faith.

For Jews, the High Holidays (which started at sundown Friday and conclude with Yom Kippur next Sunday) mark one of the most central, most pivotal moments in our religious lives, a moment that may be hard to shake and hard to deny, and corresponds in certain ways to a rite of passage.

Any rite of passage is elaborate theater that helps us traverse crucial episodes in our lives. Every culture and faith has them, and there's a reason for that: We demand pauses, breathers along the arc of our lives. Without them, life would be a blur - a shapeless, endless stream of time and energy. These ceremonies provide the lulls - the time-outs, if you will - to consider where we're going, and why; where we've come from, and why; and what the rhythm of life is, and why.

With these holidays, Jews turn instinctively toward the holy in a humbling confrontation of self and past. Done right and done well, this transports and instructs, alleviating the confusion and uncertainty that are so much a part of life.

These holy days can help Jews embrace life and shape life - one's own life. And when they're over, either the rite or the atoning, what does it mean? Have we "arrived"? Have we concluded our journey? Is a rite of passage, or is wrestling with atoning, a rehearsal for the competence and the general, all-around bravura we need to get through life, with all its disruptions and annoyances and exasperations? Each of us has our hunches about these questions. After all, life is a series of hunches and guesses strung together into a story - our story: a story that's perplexing, charming, entertaining, confusing, confounding and, maybe best of all, thoroughly unexpected.

Our stories are riddled with rites and with passages and with destinations that we have yet to reach because our tales have endings that we haven't quite figured out yet. For each of us is a story in the making, a splendid narrative still being told. If we listen closely enough, these tales can teach us and inspire us. What really matters is not whether they transfigure us, but what they're asking: "Who are you?" "Where are you?" These are questions that the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber says are "the beginning of the way. ... We can let God in only where we really stand, where we live, where we live a true life. If we maintain holy discourse with the little world entrusted to us ... then we are establishing, in this our place, the Divine Presence."

Without a way, there's a chance that we will lose our way. These holy days and these holy rituals are maps to ourselves. They are an atlas of our soul. They introduce us to a Presence; they introduce us to our self; and they remind us that our lives have the profound possibility of being more charged, more potent and more glorious, and carry far higher stakes, than we ordinarily suspect, especially when we are stuck in the everyday that so often overtakes us. Burning off the haze of the mundane and the ordinary, these days turn us toward the light - never blinding and always illuminating.

Arthur J. Magida is writer in residence at the University of Baltimore. His latest book, "Opening the Doors of Wonder: Reflections on Religious Rites of Passage," has just been released. His e-mail is amagida2@aol.com.

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