Some years ago, a dear friend of mine died suddenly. About a year before his death, he and I had some disagreements which, fortunately, we were able to patch up before the tragic news.
A few days before Yom Kippur that year, another friend, an Orthodox Jew, called to urge me to immediately go to the grave and assure my late friend that he and I had resolved our differences. I listened but politely told him I was too jammed with work to visit the cemetery. In truth, I didn’t see any spiritual reason to physically go to the cemetery and have that conversation.
But the suggestion lingered with me, and the next morning, I felt strangely compelled to take his advice. I dropped everything I was doing and made a beeline to the cemetery. It was a perfect sunny fall morning and the cemetery was silent and empty. The headstones were covered with fallen leaves so I had to brush them away in search of my friend's headstone, which I hadn’t yet seen. After a while, I uncovered it.
The moment was surreal and sobering. This was his final resting spot, and now it was just the two of us, alone, once again. I began saying all I wished to say to him, how I loved and missed him. When I was done, I walked away with a profound sense of serenity and closure — and deep gratitude to the wise friend who had implored me to visit.
The ancient Yom Kipper commandment to “make peace” with others is simple but sage advice. To me, it’s the perfect way to enter the new year — a time of renewal — with a commitment to strengthen relationships and be a better friend and person. And as a personal goal it is, generally, attainable.
But the text in the High Holiday services at my temple also challenges us to commit to doing something much larger than just a personal goal. For as long as I can remember, I have sat in High Holidays services and recited the Silent Confession, which contains the following question:
Have I always used my opportunities as a citizen to relieve suffering, to speak out against injustice, to promote harmony in the life of my city, my country, and the nations of the world?
I have always read that as a call to action to do nothing less than to try to change the world.
Quite a tall order.
For many years, I have tried to meet that challenge as best I could. I have volunteered for causes and nonprofits that are important to me. In recent years, my focus has been on combating antisemitism and racism — not exactly the easiest of tasks. I have sat through more committee and board meetings than I care to remember, and I have organized events, attended rallies and drafted my share of mission statements, by-laws and strategic plans.
But on this year’s High Holidays, if I’m being honest, I have to admit I’m finding the deluge of today’s challenges a little overwhelming. Maybe it’s pandemic fatigue, or the political climate — or all the gun violence or the frightening spike in hate crimes — but all these things and others seem to be weighing on me more than usual these days.
Maybe I’m just feeling old and a bit tired.
But I’m convinced that the perfect antidote lies in the message of the High Holidays, particularly with regard to one-on-one relationships. I’ll still work on big and lofty issues in 5783 — speaking out against injustice, promoting solidarity — but I believe the private moments with others will best energize this weary soul: making peace with relationships that are frayed, re-igniting lost but meaningful friendships, remembering a grieving or ill friend, or just paying more attention to one who I’ve perhaps taken for granted.
That doesn’t require a committee or a Board of Directors meeting. Just quiet and simple acts of kindness, without any fanfare or credit of any kind.
As Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel once said:
When I was young I admired clever people. Now that I am old, I admire kind people.
Who am I to disagree with Rabbi Heschel?
In these troubling times, his words feel like the perfect — and attainable — mission statement for me in 5783.