The month of September was filled with many of the most holy of Jewish holidays. Since the Jewish calendar is based on the lunar calendar, the High Holy Days (Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur) can arrive anywhere between early September and late October. When people say that the holidays are “early” or “late,” the classic rabbinic response is “they are right on time.” These Holy Days are a reminder for us to take time to pause and reassess where we are and where we want to be. The High Holy days are ripe with imagery that reminds us that we are not perfect beings but have the ability to change to better ourselves.
Unlike the resolutions that many of us make on December 31st, such as eating healthier, getting to the gym, the Jewish New Year asks us to do a cheshbon hanefesh, an accounting of our soul. We are to look inwards and acknowledge our flaws and shortcomings. We take a deep, hard look at ourselves and make ourselves vulnerable to admitting our mistakes. Our liturgy that runs throughout the High Holy Days, addresses our flaws in the plural, saying that “we have sinned” and “we ask for forgiveness.” While it is incumbent upon each one of us to take a personal inventory, we ask, collectively, to be included with other members of our community. This way, no one stands alone. We know that the burden of asking for forgiveness is heavy and sometimes requires the strength and support of others to make the task less daunting.
We conclude our High Holy Day period by celebrating the Festival of Sukkot or Tabernacles. We are commanded to build a sukkah, a temporary dwelling place, where we are to take our meals, offer prayers, and even sleep during an eight day period. The Fish Interfaith Center has put up a sukkah on the Fashionables Courtyard for the last three out of four years, 2020 being the exception. The first year that we constructed the sukkah, I was joined by a Muslim student and an atheist student. It was such an incredible interfaith experience as we worked together to build the sukkah and fulfill one of the commandments of the Torah. This past Sukkot, we again built the sukkah, together with students from our Jewish community as well as our Fish docents. We learned about the origin of the sukkah as we constructed it and put on the bamboo covering which allows us to see through the top and glimpse the stars at night.
The sukkah is meant to be a sacred space to come together and pause to reflect on the journey that the Israelites took as they journeyed from Egypt to the Land of Israel. This is a story that is part of many of our various faith communities and provides us with the opportunity to explore this story in our different traditions. Each of our students is on their own spiritual journey and may need a “resting place” to see how far they have come and, possibly, where they want to be. This sacred space brings together members of our Chapman community who are looking for a place to connect and ask their questions of faith in a safe and supportive environment.
The interfaith work that we do on campus isn’t just a lecture or a meeting or a meal. It is working together and supporting one another as we celebrate our various holiday traditions. We are fortunate that our students are willing to learn and seek out opportunities to ask questions about their faith and other faith traditions. Our job is to continue providing the sacred space for them to be supported in their spiritual journeys.