This year, many of our Jewish neighbors celebrated the beginning of their New Year — Rosh Hashanah — for two days, beginning on Monday evening, Sept. 6, and then the beginning of their annual Day of Atonement — Yom Kippur — on Wednesday evening, Sept. 15. Those events would also have been sacred times for Jesus and his disciples so many centuries ago. As folks in the Pharisaic tradition, they took the rituals of religion seriously and respected the pre-eminent teachers of their time. For that reason, I’ve long been open to the wisdom of Judaism and its traditions. In recent decades, the Church has encouraged us to meet those honored sages anew, and to appreciate what they can tell us about the traditions so familiar to Jesus and the people of his day.
One of those ancient rabbis used to say that there are only two things in life which every person absolutely must do for him/herself. Other people can choose our clothes for us, tell us where to live and what to eat, even tell us what to do by way of occupation and how to structure the activities of our daily existence. Especially at the beginning of our lives and as we grow older and more dependent again, others, even today, often control virtually every aspect of our lives.
There are two things, however, say the rabbis, which only we can do for ourselves; namely, pick a friend and choose a teacher.
Only we can decide to whom we will reveal our most personal thoughts, concerns and convictions. One doesn’t casually blather on and on about such matters, revealing his thinking to the folks who happen to share an elevator at a hotel or shopping mall, at least not without them thinking us slightly odd or even weird. That type of personal revelation is only for a good friend, and we are always encouraged to choose such folks wisely as we journey through life. Friends are people we invite to hear us with respect and to speak to us the truth in turn. We trust them.
Likewise, only we can select those from whom we are willing learn, whatever the subject or topic might be — what to read with an open mind, which ideas or insights we will embrace, what we will consider carefully and perhaps even accept as truth, or at least what we might use as guides for daily life.
We alone can choose our friends, and only we select our teachers. At any given point in life, each group is more precious than we can ever imagine. Such friends and teachers can walk with us and even spur us into excellence, or possibly lead us into a lot of trouble. We have the God-given freedom to select wisely. The ancient voices of Judaism can be sources of wisdom for all of us.
All this comes to mind as our Jewish friends and neighbors celebrate their High Holy Days again this year. Their traditions provide us with valuable instruments in understanding our inspired Gospels. As Christians, we venerate a Divine Savior whose early human existence was blessed by his immersion into the Judaism of his day. The more we appreciate his own Jewish culture and environment, the more clearly we are able to understand his teachings and to embrace his will for our salvation.
One of the earliest heresies in the history of Christianity occurred in the middle of the second century A.D., when a teacher by the name of Marcion arrived in Rome. Although very generous to the poor as a wealthy ship owner, he was quickly cast out of the city’s Christian community for his dismissal of the entire Old Testament. Marcion ended up rejecting all the Scriptures except the merciful Gospel of Luke and 10 of the Pauline Epistles. The leadership in Rome quickly decided he simply was not a follower of Jesus. To freely accept Jesus as one’s principal teacher is to welcome the Scriptures of Judaism.
Our Jewish neighbors are part of the family, or as the Apostle Paul reminded us quite clearly, we’re the ones adopted into their fold and “grafted into their life-giving branches.” (Romans 11:17-24) This is a God-given blessing which we are only beginning to appreciate and treasure.
The Feast Days of Israel, though not on our own Christian calendar, are worthy of respect and offer important lessons for life. The Jewish saints and scholars imagined that God sat down each autumn to “write out” the future events of the New Year for each person. May we all be written for a good New Year.