D’var Torah: The Off-Season of the High Holy Days

As a professional camp director and high school basketball coach, I often think in sports analogies. For many years, I thought of the High Holy Days as the playoffs. Everything is on the line. After ten days, God will decide whether we are to be sealed in the book of life – or not. Serious stakes for sure. Recently, though, I’ve begun to rethink this. Perhaps the better analogy is that the High Holy Days represent the off-season. Both camp and basketball are seasonal and cyclical. I love the season – summer at camp and basketball games. Yet, I also love the off-season, which provides the opportunity to tinker, to plan, to set goals, to puzzle over how to improve, and to really think about what I want to do with the upcoming season. We then have an opportunity to put these plans in place and see how we do. At the end of the season, we engage in this process once again. This cycle also gives us the opportunity to let go and start over. We don’t have to be permanently burdened by our past mistakes or failures, nor can we rest on our laurels. I think that is exactly the process we should be engaging in during the High Holy Days. Judaism gives us the gift of stepping out of the day-to-day and lets us have an off-season.

There are different stages of the off-season. We need to acknowledge and celebrate what went right. We need to evaluate by looking inward and soliciting the opinions of others. We need to come up with future plans and goals. Finally, we need to prepare, so we can implement our plan.

So how do we actually do this during the High Holy Days? There are many paths we could choose. This year I am focusing especially on behavior related to control, justice and empathy.

In a world where apps allow us to turn on home appliances from thousands of miles away, technology gives us the illusion that we can control just about anything, and tempts us to try. In evaluating myself, and based on my many interactions with parents and children, I think that many of us struggle with the realization that ultimately we have very little control over what happens to us. (Natural events – like the recent hurricanes we have witnessed – provide stark reminders of our limitations.) We do control how we react to what comes our way. Judaism teaches us to hold the tension of believing both that the whole world is created for us, and that we are but dust and ashes. I think that as we try to control more, we tend to narrow our vision to very specific times and events. We get on an emotional roller coaster and live each struggle, each setback, each triumph and each victory in highly magnetized ways. This can be counterproductive, even paralyzing. At camp, the senior staff members remind one another to get off the roller coaster and to try to keep the long view. Very little is as bad or as good as it seems in the moment.

Tzedek, tzedek tirdof – Justice, justice shall you pursue! Our sages always take note when the Torah doubles a word. The theory is that there are no extraneous words in Torah and a word’s recurrence signifies something important. Some people think the doubling means that we should be a little crazy in seeking justice. Additionally, the word “tirdof” — “to pursue” — is a pretty strong action verb. Others add that justice has many facets. There is justice for the aggrieved, justice for society, justice for the accused, and so on. You shouldn’t treat rich people better or worse, or poor people better or worse. Judaism demands we take justice very seriously. Why is this on my mind this year in particular? I think that injustice is very prevalent in the world. I spend a lot of my time on my family and my immediate community at camp and at home. But the pursuit of justice stretches us beyond that narrow focus and forces us to engage in the larger world. Our Jewish heritage originates with us as enslaved and the Torah repeatedly reminds us to take care of the widow, the orphan, the poor and the stranger. It is unclear what impact we can have in our big world, but what goes on in the world eventually impacts our more local lives. We need to add our voices and actions for justice whenever we can.

When I think about empathy, I think about what I have seen as a basketball coach when a good player has a bad shooting night. Soon, the offensive challenges impact their defense, attitude and overall game. I often tell players when they are struggling to “focus out.” Set a good pick, make a nice pass, compliment a teammate and often things will turn around for the individual player. I find this holds true for most things in life. In our smartphone “stare at our own screen” style of life it is often hard to focus out. This is why empathy is so hard. I interact with people constantly. By and large, when I find myself getting really frustrated with someone, I almost always upon further reflection find that I haven’t put myself in their shoes and seen their perspective. Although they may have truly wronged me and even sometimes done some dastardly things, it is easier to work through this when you realize where they are coming from. Additionally, if we can attune ourselves to thinking about others proactively, we can often avoid many pitfalls and treat others better.

These are a few areas I am working on right now, hoping, ultimately, to improve my game. During these High Holy Days, take time to celebrate the victories of the year gone by, engage in evaluation and introspection over what happened during the last year, and plan how you will approach this upcoming year. Have a great off-season. Shana Tova.