269: Judy Gruen: Preparing our hearts, first, for our happiness yet to come

ere at ReadTheSpirit, we love to see writers like Judy Gruen working successfully and producing lively books like “The Women’s Daily Irony Supplement.” She’s an independent in a number of ways. She’s an independent mind and voice — wise and often funny in her stories about daily life. Plus, her book is independently published.
    And, here at ReadTheSpirit, we encourage indie books and films in this era when traditional media is rapidly changing.

    If you want to do a good deed today to encourage the publication of important religious voices, then click on the cover or title of Judy’s book and buy a copy. Or, visit our other Jewish voices this week: Lynne Schreiber and Debra Darvick and give them a vote of confidence by visiting their Web sites, offering them an encouraging comment. Lynne and Debra both have published books, as well.
    This week, we also highly recommended Rob Bell’s new book — but, truth be told, Rob’s headed for best-seller status with or without our encouragement. For indie writers and filmmakers, though, every up-tick in sales and each little wave of encouraging comments truly makes a difference. So, I’m not kidding here: It’s a good deed to encourage good writers.
    AND NOW — here’s Judy’s gift to us for the High Holidays, a reflection on how the spiritual cycle of these holidays shapes their spiritual meaning. The following are Judy’s words …

Jews take a lot of traditions from the secular world and flip them over like a hot Hanuka latke.
    For example, in the secular world people party the night away before New Year’s, drinking, dining and dancing. Only when the party’s over do they really face the music, forcing themselves to the gym, signing on to the South Beach diet, and trying their best to implement their other resolutions for self-improvement.
    Jews do just the opposite. Our New Year isn’t about drinking or dancing, though food plays its recurring, starring role. It’s about recognizing that God is really our Father and our King. It’s about recognizing that we are being evaluated and judged — that’s why Rosh Hashanah is also known as Yom Ha Din — the day of judgment.

    Rosh Hashanah may be a new year, but it’s also pretty serious stuff, which is why we hold off our celebrations until the holiday of Sukkot, two weeks later. Till then, we’re supposed to be busy with self-reflection and sincere plans for self-improvement. Not the shallow changes about losing the same old 10 pounds or getting a new car, but the deeper goals of making ourselves greater spiritually and morally.
    We also ask God, as well as the people in our lives, to forgive us for our mistakes, missteps and missed opportunities.
    Rosh Hashanah means “head of the year,” so it’s logical that we use our heads to get ready for it. But we also need to use our hearts to make the process work. Before Rosh Hashanah, I try to carve out serious think time about how I can develop closer relationships with God and with my husband and children.
    I also choose a few small ways to become a better Jew, whether adding more study time during the week, a commitment to do more acts of kindness for the needy in the community, or something else that will have both practical and transcendent power.
    At this time, I try to put my life in perspective, to remember what really matters most. If the idea of Rosh Hashanah as “Judgment Day” seems scary, well, look at the bright side: God may be judging us, but He’s also rooting for us.

   I admit that I feel a little sheepish asking for forgiveness and for so many blessings, given my own embarrassing record of Most Blown Resolutions in a Single Year. Over the years, my resolutions have included praying each morning; reading through all the Psalms, including the commentary (a fat two-volume set); reading the weekly Torah portion with commentary; and working my way through the books of the Prophets, Judges and Writings.
    Because I often attempt an unreasonable amount, I end up just like the guy or girl who committed to become a gym rat, dropping the weighted ball somewhere along the way. I’ve gotten to Psalm 50 (out of 150); I’ve read loads of commentary on every Torah portion until about the time the Jews leave Egypt; and I’ve gotten through Joshua, Judges, and Samuel 1, but I’ve been in the middle of Samuel 2 longer than I care to admit. As for my morning prayers, let’s just call the practice “spotty” and leave it at that.
    Faced with this record, I have two choices: beat myself up over my inconsistencies, or look at the glass as half-full rather than half-empty. Berating myself for my failures is actually the easy way out; an excuse not to begin again, perhaps with more modest goals.

    Our Torah and other sacred writings are eternal. They are waiting for me to plumb their depths again. Opportunities for prayer, for acts of kindness, for giving more charity, to restrain my anger over inconsequential things, and overcome other petty instincts, are there each day that I am blessed with life and health.
    It’s not too late to resume where I left off. No, I didn’t achieve the goals I had set for myself — yet.
    It’s ironic that in an era saturated with notions of self-esteem, so many of us are plagued with doubts about our own self-worth. We wonder if our prayers, our words and our actions really matter to God.
    I am convinced that they do. And every apple tree grows from a single seed.
    We each hold within us enormous, untapped potential to become far greater than we ever imagined. Even small changes, small deeds, can tip the balance sheet in the world to the good.
    We don’t dance on Rosh Hashanah because it is judgment day, but our celebration will be that much sweeter during Sukkot, also known as zman simchateinu, meaning, the “time of our happiness.” We’re happy because after this period of reflection and heartfelt prayer, we are confident that God accepts our repentance and will bless us with another year of life — with all of that untapped potential just waiting to burst forth. And of course on the holiday of Simchat Torah, right after Sukkot, dancing (and drinking) are de rigueur.
    We Jews have plenty to celebrate when it comes to the New Year. We just need to do it in the right order.

    Judy Gruen’s own site is www.JudyGruen.com
    She’s a popular visitor here at ReadTheSpirit. Click here to jump back and read her previous piece for our online magazine.

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   (Published in the ReadTheSpirit online magazine.)

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