by H. Eric Schockman, Ph.D.
Every year at the High Holy Days, I am reminded of an old family friend whose unflagging optimism always fueled my great admiration. “How are things going?” I would ask whenever our paths would cross, to which he would make the inevitable reply: “Today is going to be the best day yet.” He looked forward to every sunrise; every meal; every conversation. Even as a young man, it struck me as a courageous and inspirational philosophy. Seen through the lens of his recurrent illness and financial misfortune, the certainty of his pronouncement taught me a fundamental life’s lesson: to live fully is to embrace each moment, savoring its sweetness and recognizing its transformative potential. Put another way, we are not defined by what has already happened or by what tomorrow may bring, but by what we do today.
Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, with their themes of renewal and redemption, make the point even more clearly. Over the course of these holidays, we are neither held hostage to the failures of the past nor burdened by the demands of the future. Rather, by insisting that we carve out time for serious self-reflection, they enable us to focus squarely on the present, what writer Eckhart Tolle calls the power of now. In doing so, the High Holy Days force us to confront who we are and how we live and, in the process, to realize that our everyday actions have important implications for our community and the world around us.
It’s no wonder these days are viewed as the most significant of the Jewish calendar; their emphasis on self-awareness and empowerment can spark truly remarkable individual and social change. This makes them not just Days of Awe, but also:
Days of Hopefulness. What an extraordinary thing: to be part of a tradition that tells us we have the ability, and the tools, to help heal a broken world. Judaism does not relegate the pursuit of social justice to an idyllic hereafter, instead demanding we make it the business of the here-and-now. As the head of a nonprofit working to end hunger, I know the solutions we seek will not come easy. But they will come. And they start with us, today. They start with us letting our elected representatives know that food insecurity and healthy eating are top priorities in this recession. And they start with renewed volunteerism to help feed those in need.
Days of Commitment. The High Holy Days are not a vacation from responsibility; they are, on the contrary, a call to greater accountability. With each blast of the shofar, we hear the holiday message: Personal growth is achievable. Our ideal society is within reach. But these things take motivation, hard work and a willingness to take the first step. With commitment, we can, as President Obama has pledged, end childhood hunger in America by 2015.
Days of Opportunity. As we examine our decisions and take stock of our lives, we have a rare chance to wipe the slate clean, rededicating ourselves to a rich and meaningful existence that integrates personal fulfillment and communal needs. It’s a new beginning, filled with infinite promise. As the holiday liturgy says, “Hayom Harat Olam” – Today is the day of the world’s creation.
With busy schedules and hectic lives, we so seldom have a second to breathe. We run through our days barely noticing their passage, and eagerly anticipating tomorrow. The New Year exaggerates this tendency, tempting us to look ahead and wonder what the coming months will bring. But as my friend understood all those years ago, living in the future simply distracts us from what is right before our eyes: the possibility that we can make this moment the very best one yet.