days of awe

September 16, 2021

A comment by one of our students promoted this blog. I hope it serves us well. 

Often I am asked by non-Jewish Krav Maga students about the meaning of Jewish holidays. Why do they ask this of a Krav Maga instructor? Well, I guess to them I represent more than a fighting coach and more of a life coach and a representative of Jewish life and values. So I am always happy to answer.

Now they can certainly get a certain basic idea from reading the internet but that is often dry and incomplete, and every story has an angle. So I will make an attempt. 

We just concluded a period in the Jewish calendar called the Ten Days of Repentance, it began with the Jewish New Year and concluded just a short while ago with the Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur. Some well-meaning people wish me a "Happy New Year", thinking that it will be like the Western New Year; parties, food, girls, dancing, just a wild time. But it is nothing like that, in fact it is the exact opposite. It is the beginning of the Days of Awe, the days we look deeply inward into ourselves, enter a conversation with God, and seek to resolve differences with friends and reconcile past issues. It is an Awe-some time, a very difficult time of year, if you do it correctly. But it is a time of great growth, and camaraderie.

It is a time of reckoning, of looking at our behavior during the past year and seeing where we went wrong, where we were guilty, and where we can improve. 

and now I want to include, in particular, the non-believers in our midst. I want to include those who think that we are trying to behave well because we are afraid of a big bad God who will punish us if we are bad. I want to include those who think we are weak and immoral and the only thing that keeps us in line is the fear of God. This is a vast oversimplification of thousands of years of faith.

This period of the year we take a look at our actions, a deep, honest and painful look: where did I hurt someone? Did I make a public remark about someone that caused him to be embarrassed? Did I publicly question someone's integrity? Did I make an off-hand remark to someone, carelessly, that caused him professional and personal problems? Did my careless words hurt someone? Did I accidently spread a false rumor because I did not bother truly looking into it?

This has nothing to do with a big boogie man called God, this has to do with us, failed, faulty human beings. We need to improve. The Jewish New Year and Days of Awe are about self-improvement. 

The Bible, the Torah, is a guide book, yes, that is what Torah actually means, guidance. It is not a fire and brimstone you will go to hell if you don't listen book, at least what we call the Bible, i.e. the Torah, the Five Books of Moses. Imagine a model, the kind you buy and put together, as a child I loved making model tanks and military aircraft, jeeps etc, anything of military nature. It comes with a picture on the cover so you know what it is supposed to look like, and it comes with a set of written instructions. The creator of the model gave us those written instructions to help us reach our goal, a tank that looks like the one on the cover. Get my drift. The Torah is the guidebook, the step by step guide so that we become that model human being that we were intended to become. 

Now you might say that this can also be achieved without the instructions. Unlikely. Without going into a complete history of mankind I will say that what we see today as "social norms" are the product of a Bible based culture of thousands of years. If you study the laws of ancient societies you will find them abhorrent. Gone are the "normal" values of society as we know them. In fact even in our own times we see certain segments of society adopting behavior patterns that are totally incompatible with what all decent people until recently considered normal. Suddenly the police are the bad guys, suddenly looting and robbing is the correct mode of behavior, suddenly career criminals are sainted and have statues made in their honor etc. So, "normal" is not a given.

Go back to ancient societies and...slavery is a norm, being allowed to kill your own children is a norm, crucifixion is an acceptable punishment (started with Carthage), taking wives and concubines from a defeated enemy is the norm, having a harem and eunuchs is a norm. In many societies the son never owned anything until his father died. If you adopted a child, or took in a stray child, you have the right to all his earnings, and the right to kill him. Certain segments of society never work, other segments always work, there was no such thing as a "weekend". In fact the Jews were called "lazy" for taking off every seventh day.

When Rome defeated Israel and took many Jewish slaves, these slaves brought with them the values of the Torah. These became so popular that it was said, "The vanquished became the victors", as the Judeans were taking over Rome with their Biblical values. Eventually of course much of this was incorporated in the new offshoot religion, Christianity. 

Bottom line is that modern Western society and its social norms that we take as a given, did not come about by chance but are in fact the result of Biblical laws and traditions. Most of you reading this blog, whether believers or not, are the result of generations of Bible believers. You may have lost the faith but retained the values, which was the ultimate goal of the teachings. 

Now let's go back to the Days of Repentance; this is not some hocus pocus thing to "please and appease the gods" devised by primitive people who had "no other explanation for the events of life, so they invented gods". That is as silly as it is preposterous, not to mention deeply insulting. Judaism as a system has survived and thrived for over 3,500 years in the most trying of circumstances, persecutions and torment in every land (of a nature that is difficult to comprehend, the Holocaust was only the most recent event). The system survived because it works; it has produced a peaceful, moral and productive people. Just as an example, many kingdoms expelled the Jews as a pretext for stealing their wealth in order to replenish the national treasury, but then a few years later invited the Jews back, when they realized they could not manage without them. Even in our own times many European nations are actively recruiting Jews, even offering citizenship to those who could prove some sort of ancestry in that country. I recall having breakfast in K√∂nigsbach when a German fellow came over and said that Germany needs half a million Jews, this would be great for the culture and economy. 

So the Jewish way of life, the Biblical laws, produce a society where people take care of each other, yes the rich consider it a Divine Godly obligation to help the needy. Yes, the wealthy believe that God will bless them if they help out those less fortunate than themselves. When "beggars" come to the door they say, "Let me merit you with a good deed." I.e. by collecting money from me this collector is helping me! he is kindly providing me with the opportunity to help a person in distress. And yes I see this a divine commandment. 

But even if I did not, I see that this system works. When my father passed away, I had to do...nothing! The community jumped in, food was brought over. The doorbell rang, there was a box of bottled water, no note. Then again it rang, the Pizza guy with 3 pies, we tried to pay, but he said, "it has been paid for. Sorry for your loss", and so on, for 7 days, guests, and food, a Torah scroll was brought over, prayer books for the daily prayers, every need was taken care of. What a system, what a nation!

When it comes to the Day of Atonement we need to search our ways and find where we went wrong. And then, we need to approach this person and try to reconcile, apologize. This is extremely difficult! Posting a silly photo on Facebook all I have wronged I ask sincere forgiveness. What a sick joke!! Do it in person! This is what it is all about.

The rabbis say, if you have wronged someone you must ask him for forgiveness, ask him for forgiveness, not God! For God has no power to forgive you that which you have done to another. God can only forgive after this individual has forgiven you. 

The Jewish New Year, Days of Awe, Ten Days of Atonement, and the Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur, are practical guides that have worked for longer than any other system in the world. When followed correctly they lead to what is known as a "good neighborhood", a good Godly society. The Jewish New Year is not a party day, or a day to commit more transgressions and immoral acts, but rather a time of deep Personal reflection and growth. 

Have a good year everyone, a productive year of growth.