09/04/2013 04:16 pm ET Updated Nov 04, 2013

A Tough Year for High Holy Days Inspiration

Regardless of what is happening in Syria and the Middle East, it's time to contemplate the Jewish High Holy Days. Whether there is war or not, I am asked to speak at interfaith gatherings about the meaning of these days, to be both academic and personal, to be an inspirational teacher and a storyteller of personal and family experiences. How can I do all that with a backdrop of impending war?

Here in Chattanooga, Tennessee, there is relative calm. The most visible activity in the synagogue when I met with the rabbi before Rosh Hashanah was a massive cleaning efforts.  Every floor is wet, washed for these High Holy Days just as we wash away our sins with a symbolic trip to a stream or, in my case, the Tennessee River. As we strive to be worthy of the gift of life for yet another year, the phrase "tikkun olam" is frequently heard. It means "repair of the world" and requires personal efforts to make right any wrongs done in the past year and communal efforts towards a more just and kind world.

Yet, acts of kindness and justice seem far too little and too late when I turn on the news.  Yes, making things right with fellow human beings brings out the highest instincts of humanity. But the violence, the dislocation, the zeal for killing coming out of the Middle East makes my faith in G-d waver. Understanding my purpose in creation is clouded; my usual passion for making a difference collapses. Lingering doubts are made more visible and pointed when confronted with humanity's violence, with the death and destruction we bring upon ourselves. My Creator and I will have a lengthy discussion this year, and I will need to apologize for my lack of faith.

Life and death is a constant theme of the High Holy Days. Remembrance of those who have passed away, particularly the recently deceased, is a must. The older I get, the longer the list of lost loved ones becomes, so I get an early start on the process. There is a special Yizkor service in their memory embedded in these holy days. The memorial service is intended to provide community comfort in our grief. Will Yizkor take on a more urgent meaning this year that no amount of preparation can soften?

I attend Yizkor alone, as did my father, who also needed a private moment with G-d. A compulsively well-organized, well-educated, and successful executive, Dad shared less and less about his family of Eastern European immigrants as he got older. And he  never spoke of his training and experience as a military intelligence office during World War II after graduating from Harvard University. Dad was stationed in Europe and Germany.  Not until I was middle-aged, did I hear him speak of the labor camp he liberated and learn of his private archive of WW II letters he'd kept for 60 years.

Dad hated Yom Kippur, often translated as the Day of Atonement. Knowing it was coming, he prepared as if going into battle. The High Holy Days had him cleaning and scrubbing with military precision and zeal, as he was in his insistence that we arrive on time for services.  He barely tolerated the rest of us as we ambled through getting dressed, sloppily leaving stuff all over the place in the process, and ignoring the clock. He rounded us and made sure that we'd be at the synagogue for the call to prayer sounded by the ram's horn, the shofar. It takes practice, a good set of lungs, and a hearty dose of bravery, to produce the shofar's sounds and patterns from the "bimah" platform overlooking the entire congregation. No wonder that the sound of the shofar prompts Jews around the world to give thanks for the gift of life and pray to be inscribed in the Book of Life for another year.

The shofar is again blown to close the Days of Awe on Yom Kippur, often translated as Day of Atonement. My father sat tight-lipped and at military attention through Yom Kippur. One of few Fast days in Judaism, Yom Kippur is deeply solemn and spiritual, accepting the divine will for one's length of days. By the end of Yom Kippur when the shofar is blown in a single, super human blast, the sounds echoes in every cell of the body. I will not be fasting this year. Age and health issues make fasting too risky.  My daughter has asked that I cease and desist, honoring the Jewish tradition of preserving life above other considerations. There are too few Jews in the world to subtract from our numbers by my dedication to fasting. Although I miss the spiritual experience, I will endeavor to, as the kids say, "Get over myself."

I feel my insignificance as I hold my breath with the news coming out of the Middle East. I flounder as I prepare this year's presentations on the High Holy Days for various interfaith gatherings.  Like the rabbis who are no doubt contemplating alternate sermons should war break out, I also consider a Plan B. What can I offer? I have no strategy for conflict resolution where peace has been virtually non-existent in modern history and beyond. I've become jaded about the prospect of a nonviolent Middle East, as tight lipped and stoic as my father.

Despite my skepticism, I am praying that the world finds a reasonable path to stability. I am heartened by the odd, but mesmerizing, global conversation emerging about Middle Eastern dynamics. In a region where covert operations are common, secrecy prized, and battles seem to break out spontaneously, it feels bizarre for the world to be discussing out loud the ins-and-outs of military action.  Yet, it gives me some hope that if we cannot achieve peace, we can at least avoid Armageddon.  

I hear my father's favorite sayings in my head, "It's always darkest before the dawn", and "Life must go on". I make my New Year's resolution to renew efforts to repair the world, for "tikkun olam". I look for company in my efforts to make a difference. Even though we may never complete the task or suspect that our contribution is insignificant, we are not excused from trying. And finally coming to the inspirational message I sought for my presentations, I pray that the ancient blessing of the High Holy Days becomes a reality for all of us, "May you be inscribed in the Book of Life for another year, a good year."