Two Reflections for the New Year: 5774 By Ivy Helman

ivyIn June, my friend, Shifra, and I became Co-Chairs of the Ritual Committee at our shul. During the past few weeks, we have occasionally turned to one another and said, “I can’t wait for the High Holy Days to be over!”  Then, we have paused realizing what we have said and have sworn that we didn’t mean it.  We don’t.  Truly, we don’t.  But we are overwhelmed by the sheer amount of detail required for the days to go well.  There are babysitters to find, flowers to pick-up and drop off and pick-up again, kiddushim to organize, chairs to arrange, musicians to contact, mahzorim to bring up from the basement, bulletins and programs to coordinate, volunteers to recruit, parking to find for Tashlich, carpets to be cleaned, pianos to be tuned and so much more.  Thank G-d there is a committee and a community to help us, but we still have much of the organizing and synchronizing to do.  It’s a lot for two people who also have jobs, family and other responsibilities to fit in as well.

What concerns me more than anything in all of this organizing and busyness is that I won’t be personally prepared for the High Holy Days.  These days require personal, spiritual and relational work which all takes time.  I can’t show up on Yom Kippur morning and expect to have an amazingly deep spiritual experience if I have done nothing to prepare myself for it.  To me, this would be the irony of all ironies: the one who has spent the past three months making sure the shul is ready isn’t prepared herself.  Since the last week of August, I have been setting aside time away from the details to make sure that doesn’t happen.  Within the personal work I’ve done, I have found two inspirational and meaningful reflections which I’d like to share with you.stop sign

The first reflection comes from the selichot service I attend a week or so ago.  There, my Rabbi said that one of the ways you have to prepare for the High Holy Days is to think about what chet (sin) means to you.  This is a brilliant but challenging idea!

My reflection started with some reading.  Marjorie Suchocki observes correctly in her book The Fall to Violence that sin in Western society has generally been defined as rebellion against G-d (16).  In other words, G-d’s doing the defining and us the obeying.  Judaism teaches as much does it not? How then can one define sin for one’s self?  But feminism also teaches something very important to remember.  Patriarchy has done most of the defining of what counts as sin for millennia!  In fact, there are many patriarchal attitudes in our holy writings as well.  Patriarchy understands sin to be sex-related often defining sin in ways that attempt to control female sexuality and advocate compulsory heterosexuality.  Patriarchal attitudes about sin set up strict boundaries with little room for an ethical grey-area.  In addition, within patriarchy there seems to be some sins that aren’t really sins unless you are unfortunate enough to get caught.  Money and privilege can usually buy freedom.  Finally, American society focuses much of its attention on the aseret hadiberot (The Ten Commandments) and, conveniently enough, those overlook many other misdeeds and transgressions of patriarchy, capitalism and the like.

In many ways, then, one could say that in order to be liberated from the grasp of patriarchy, one must redefine sin.  Nonetheless, I find it personally daunting to step outside of this framework.  Luckily, Judaism’s definition of chet as “missing the mark” gives me somewere to start.  What is the target I have missed?   In other words, who am I supposed to be?  What is my best self?  What have I done that has photo 2put me slightly off-course?  Which arrows/deeds missed the target completely?  (I’m still sorting out answers to these questions).

I am looking forward to how the words al chet shechatanu l’fanecha will feel when chet means something deeply personal to me, when the target I’m aiming for is my best self.  Atonement, G-d’s forgiveness and spirituality should take on greater significance, and, G-d willing, sincere, authentic spiritual and personal growth will transpire.  I think I will also feel more ownership over my life and a greater sense of autonomy by this feminist act of redefining chet (my Rabbi didn’t specifically define it as feminist that evening, but I think she’s agree with me that it is!).

Another spiritual reflection I am using this year comes from the meditations at the beginning of Gates of Forgiveness (1993).  One reads, “‘I am prayer (Psalm 109.4).’  There are three rungs to this ladder.  Third best is to talk about prayer.  Second best is to pray.  Best is to be prayer.”  In all the busyness leading up to the High Holy Days, I have done a lot of talking about prayer and a good amount of praying too, but I am curious about how to reach that third rung and be prayer.  And, what is it about prayer that I want to be?  Is it the characteristics of what prayer is like?  Meditative?  Calming?  Feeling connected?  A sense of deep spirituality?  Is being prayer like when you meet those people who just seem to ooze a spiritual presence and calmness? Or does being prayer mean cultivating all of those characteristics I ask for in my prayers?  Being an agent of justice, love, peace, care, strength and truth?  Reconnecting to the Oneness of it all?  Perhaps it is all of these things at once.  Perhaps it is something more.  All I know is that I would like to be prayer one day because being prayer must mean moving closer toward the person that G-d wants me to be.

All of this reflection has inspired me to set three goals this new year.  First, I want to cultivate an environment at my shul that provides a welcoming experience and prayerful setting for all who attend.  Second, I would like to sit at the Break-Fast and feel more attapplesandhoneyuned to the Eternal, to my family and friends, to G-d’s creation and to myself than I do right now.  Finally, I would like to be a few steps closer to being prayer even though I’m not quite sure what I mean by it.  If everything doesn’t work as well as I wanted this year, I know that I tried as hard as I could. Besides, there is always next year, G-d-willing.

A Blesséd and Good New Year to All!

Shanah tovah!

Author: Ivy Helman, Ph.D.

Jewish feminist scholar, activist, and professor living in Prague, Czech Republic and currently teaching at Charles University in their Gender Studies Program.

5 thoughts on “Two Reflections for the New Year: 5774 By Ivy Helman”

  1. Lots of food for thought here. Great post.

    Isn’t missing the mark taken from Aristotle? If so, or if not, isn’t the focus of the metaphor more on the self than self-in-community? What if all the work you did to organize the high holidays is what it means to be prayer, with the proviso that loving God means loving your self as well as your neighbor? So maybe it means a kind of mindfulness of self and God in the midst of generous work for community?

    My own definition of sin would be along the lines of not opening your heart enough to the world and Goddess. If in the midst of organizing the High Holy Days you are mindful of opening your heart to close others in your community and to all others in the web of life and to God, maybe this is prayer.


  2. There are times when we are doing all of the work necessary to ritualize an inner process that the work might be keeping us from doing what we perceive of as the “actual” work. As a priestess I have found, however, that the physical work that I do to prepare sacred space for others aids me – it prepares me. It is in doing of this work that my focus is brought to the place – the exact place – it needs to be to do the inner work required and when it is time to step through -into – and over the threshold, I can do so with absolutely perfect intent.


  3. Lovely post. Lovely journey. You mention “G-d’s forgiveness”. A wise rabbi once told me that G-d cannot “forgive”; G-d simply is. It is only we who can forgive ourselves, and since we are most surely much tougher on ourselves than G-d would ever be, it is a very high bar we set. So forgive yourself for that high bar that you can’t quite reach, and cherish the journey in trying to reach it. May your year be sweet and beautiful.


  4. I mentioned on FAR recently that I once taught myself biblical Hebrew in order to translate the Book of Ruth myself. Actually I fell in love with Biblical Hebrew, truly, the loving kindness, the chesed especially that seemed everywhere to permeate the Ruth text, a great joy to interact with. I can’t speak the language, I can only translate it with several dictionaries on hand to work with. But today just seeing the Hebrew letters here in the photo made me smile. Thank you for your post today, Ivy. Shanah tovah!


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