We are enveloped in the Jewish High Holidays, which began with Rosh Hashanah, then Yom Kippur and eight days of Sukkot, and culminating with Simchas Torah on Tuesday, Oct. 25.
It is naturally a time for introspection and elevation through prayer, repentance and giving, followed by joyful celebration.
This year, my 40th birthday falls on Shemini Atzeret, a lesser-known holiday on the last day of Sukkot. While reaching this age and stage can have a bit of a sting, it helps to connect with my roots and understand the deeper significance of this number and the holidays.
Though I learned about the High Holidays in Sunday school, I never fully felt as if they were part of me, as I was immersed in a secular American life.
It’s like soaking a sponge for years — in TV commercials, public schools and universities, non-Jewish friends and neighbors — until the Jewish identity is barely felt from within or noticed from the outside.
About 10 years ago, I discovered Judaism. Not the watered-down version that was altered somewhat recently, but rich, meaningful Torah Judaism based on mesorah of thousands of years. I met real people who lived it, who retained their authentic Jewish identity and lifestyle. They are intelligent, spiritual and confident, and I was hooked.
I began searching for every morsel of information I could find to learn more about my faith and heritage, for myself and for my children.
Hasidic teaching says that in order for a person to reach any new stage, to ascend to a higher level of insight and understanding, there first has to be a kind of self-nullification, an emptying out of oneself to make room for the new. I’m realizing that my sponge, squeezed of much of the negativity and inauthenticity, is being filled again with meaning and direction toward something greater. Something beyond myself and this world.
My children learn about the holidays at school and bring home the morsels of their education: crayon-colored shofars, waterproof sukkah decorations and holiday-themed Torah thoughts for the older ones. We hosted guests for Rosh Hashanah and will celebrate in our sukkah with friends, eating together and learning about ourselves and our connection to our past and future.
Over the years, as my husband and I discover more about the Judaism of our great-grandparents and the generations before us, we realize that the Jewish calendar, framed by the cycle of holidays, places a structure and meaning within our lives.
Essentially, we transcend the daily grind that could be consumed by work and football games. My family still enjoys art, dance, sports, fishing, museums and other activities, but we are living a life of purpose.
As I approach 40, it’s as if the things I have been learning are beginning to make sense, to be internalized. And, in general, I’m starting to trust myself more.
Our sages say we receive the gift of binah (understanding) at 40 (Avos 5:21). The Talmud (Avodah Zarah 5b) says, “One does not come to fully comprehend the knowledge of his teacher before 40 years,” connecting age 40 with the attainment of knowledge and a new state of being. Rabbi Akiva transformed his life at age 40, going from an ignorant shepherd to one of the greatest Torah scholars and righteous men who ever lived.
The sages indicate that at age 40, great transformation can and is supposed to occur. The number 40 is significant throughout the Torah. Moses spent 40 days on Mount Sinai, and it took 40 years of wandering and experience in the desert for the Jews to understand in an inner and profound way. At the end of those 40 years, they were finally allowed entrance to the Promised Land.
The attainment of a higher level, however, can come only after fulfilling all aspects of the previous level, then making an emptiness to allow for the emergence of something entirely new. Squeezing out the sponge and allowing it to soak up a new life.
As my 40th High Holiday season unfolds, it signifies both a completion and a beginning — and, with G-d’s help, the foundation of an entirely new existence.
L’shana tova umetuka. May we all be blessed with a happy, healthy and sweet new year full of growth and new understanding.