09/20/2013 02:52 pm ET Updated Nov 20, 2013

You Can Learn a Lot From Stinky Potatoes

The Jewish new year 5774 has just begun.

Jews everywhere expressed gratitude for their blessings, so many of which we, um, forget to acknowledge amid the steady drumbeat of everyday life.

This is what I enjoy most about the high holidays -- stopping time just enough to be able to view life with altered eyes. We ponder last year's journey and think hard about the choices we'll make differently in the present year.

I am a secular Jew, and while faith comes to me through varied mediums like poetry, song, friendship, the Christian hymn Amazing Grace, cooking, and wandering in the mountains, among other ways, I tend to be very receptive during these "Days of Awe."

Maybe this year I listened closer. Because I heard our young Rabbi at Denver's Temple Micah talk about forgiveness with real humor and humanity. My children and I attended a family service on Yom Kippur, which, for those who are unaware, is considered to be the holiest, most solemn day of the year. So here it was that I kept mouthing "sit still" to my son, and "pay attention honey" to my daughter, when Rabbi Mo, as he is fondly known, begins to tell an animated tale about smelly potatoes. This gets everybody's attention.

Smelly potatoes. On Yom Kippur... a day of fasting?

"Once there was this rabbi who was upset by the gossip and grudges her congregants seemed to harbor toward one another," says Rabbi Mo. He continues..."So one Rosh Hashanah she asked everyone to take an empty sack and fill it with potatoes at the back of the temple -- one for each person whose actions and behavior upset them. Potato by potato, the congregants filled their sacks and tied them airtight. The rabbi then gave them a mandate: they were to carry the sacks on their backs for the next ten days leading up to Yom Kippur. The sacks were to remain with them at all times, even when they slept. Day one schlepping potatoes was amusing, even silly. Day two, not so much. By the third day, and certainly the fourth, the potatoes began to smell foul and hauling all that rubbish became a physical burden."

Can you imagine a community of people stooped over from the weight of their judgments, carrying sacks of stinky potatoes to the playground, the grocery store, business meetings, the bedroom?


What negative thoughts are you holding onto?

It hardly matters if you are Jewish or not. Letting go of hurt and displeasure are universal concepts. So join me by placing all that weighs you down into a sack of your own choosing. Heck, get an old pillowcase or a lawn-size garbage bag. Jot names, feelings, events, anything you like that hinders you from being calm and present. Throw in the book that makes you angry and the cracked teapot you hate because it belonged to your mean Aunt Polly. Get rid of the broken hedge trimmer your smiling neighbor gave you (grrrrr), the blouse you wish you could burn, and the bean plant that just won't grow. Make your sacks airtight, but please, discard your waste before the stench takes over. No stinky potatoes allowed.