Holy days are here again

Hurricane Katrina's devastation has added a new layer of introspection to the Jewish High Holy Days, which begin Monday and Tuesday with Rosh Hashana and end Oct. 12-13 with Yom Kippur.
"The Jewish High Holy Days are when you should take a good look at yourself, and if there's something you don't like, this is the time for you to modify that," said Rabbi Celso Cukierkorn of Hattiesburg's Temple B'nai Israel.

Debbie Shemper, a member of the synagogue, said Katrina has given her a new perspective on the High Holy Days.

"It celebrates God's role as king of the universe, and certainly what's gone on the last five weeks, it shows you that some things are out of your control," Shemper said. "The hurricane was out of our contol and for what reason it came and devastated the lives it has is really not for us to know, but it does make you think and realize that we all have to think of others and think of ways we can help our fellow man. It's going to definitely be a different new year. I think all people will be thinking in that vein. For Jews, it's the holiest time of the year, and this year I think it will be especially holy."

The High Holy Days period actually begins in Elul, the Hebrew month preceding Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year, Rabbi Shraga Simmons wrote on the Web site Elul is an important period of introspection, of clarifying life's goals, and of growing closer to God.

It was on the first day of Elul that Moses - following the sin of the Golden Calf - ascended Mount Sinai to receive a new, second set of stone tablets from God, Simmons wrote. "Forty days later - on the seminal Yom Kippur - Moses returned to the people with tablets in hand, signaling a repair of the breech between the Jewish people and God."

Rosh Hashana commemorates the creation of the first humans, Adam and Eve. On this day, the Books of Life and Death are open and Jews stand before God to ask for another year of life.

The morning before Rosh Hashana, Jews perform "Hatarat Nedarim" - annulling all vows - which enables them to enter the new year with a clean slate. The shofar, or ram's horn, is blown on Rosh Hashana.

Yom Kippur is the Day of Atonement, the holiest day of the Jewish year. Yom Kippur atones for transgressions against God, but it does not include wrongs committed against other humans. It is the custom to apologize and seek forgiveness from any friends, relatives or acquaintances who may have been harmed or insulted over the past year on or before Yom Kippur.

Hurricane Katrina's aftermath magnified the good and bad in humans, Cukierkorn said.

"The hurricane was wind and water magnified," he said. "The people who lived through the hurricane, who they are was also magnified. It brings out the most of what you are. We all have the potential for good and bad."

Acts of violence following the Aug. 29 storm illustrate the bad, Cukierkorn said, while the good is shown through people who performed acts of generosity toward others.

"If you are a negative person and you have a tree on top of your house, you're going to think the world is bad place," Cukierkorn said. "If you're a positive person, you're going to be glad the tree through your roof didn't destroy your house."

We should look for ways to solve problems, not just complain about them, the rabbi said.

"There are always people who have it worse than you," Shemper said.

Cukierkorn said he has heard some Hattiesburg residents complaining that traffic is heavier since Hurricane Katrina because of the flood of temporary residents and emergency workers into the area, or that the wait in restaurants is longer.

"We should be looking at all those people around us and wonder if those people are here because they lost their houses or are here to connect our cable. How thankful we should be for those people," he said. "Those are the kind of things we should put in perspecitve when we come to the High Holy Days."


By Robyn Jackson

From the October 1, 2005 issue of the The Hattiesburg American .