Teaching kids about the soul-work of the High Holy Days

Teaching kids about the soul-work of the High Holy Days

Ariel Russo, the rabbi of CSI Nyack, was educated by the Jewish Theological Seminary of America and inspired by Camp Ramah. In her spare time she wrangles her kids into car seats and explores the lower Hudson region with her husband.

How many of us have heard that Rosh Hashanah is late this year?

The High Holy Days always seem to be early or late and never really come on time. When we talk about timing, we also are acknowledging how unprepared we may feel to engage in cheshbon hanefesh, the working on the soul, that the holidays require of us. We often struggle with the intensity of teshuvah, of return, and making different decisions. And it may seem natural to spare the children in our lives from this challenging work, and shield them from the less perfect version of ourselves that becomes apparent through deep introspection.

Instead, we share the most fun aspects of the holiday — the world’s birthday, honey with apples to symbolize the new year’s sweetness, extravagant meals, and new outfits. But it’s precisely the difficult work of looking inward during yamim noraim, from the start of Elul through the end of Yom Kippur, that is essential to model and communicate to our children as young Jews and as ethical people in this world.

It is hard enough for us to ready ourselves fully for the call of the shofar and the list of al chet sins that soon follow. How do we cultivate a joyful experience of the holidays while modeling the seriousness of the work involved?

When we engage in the spiritual work of looking at our own actions and the ways we have missed the mark, we are living Jewish values and modeling them for our children. When we carefully explain how we make mistakes as parents, teachers, and human beings, we are showing our children how deep and uplifting it can be to own up to our own shortcomings. 

Our tradition has a system for what to do when mistakes happen. Maimonides, the medieval Sephardic Jewish philosopher and physician, explains that teshuvah has three parts: confession, regret, and not repeating the offense. Judaism categorizes sins into sins against God (such as breaking Shabbat) and sins between people (such as theft). When apologizing to people, we have to try to make amends and try to find a way to seek forgiveness and/or financially right a wrong. We admit our mistake, make an apology to the person or people we wronged, and vow to make better mistakes next time. A true sign of teshuvah is when we face a very similar situation and choose a different path. We try not to repeat wrongdoings. Judaism gives us room to mess up and a way to come back from it.

Toddlers through high school students need to hear stories of failure. In 2013, two psychologists, Dr. Sara Duke and Dr. Robyn Fivush, set out to determine what factors contributed to children’s resiliency. They learned that children who knew their families stories and origins, with their successes and setbacks, contributed to higher self-esteem and children’s sense of control. (You can google “The Stories That Bind Us” in New York Times.) Honesty about our own shortcomings, setbacks, and mistakes help our children see the value in the work of teshuva. It also helps them to be able to do the work themselves. Children do not need or expect us to be perfect (okay, sometimes they might expect us to be perfect), yet we have an opportunity, especially during this time of year, to teach them about how we handle missing the mark.

By sharing about our mistakes and what makes us vulnerable, we open up communication and possibilities for their own inevitable missteps. We are also helping them to see that they are part of a larger system, a family and religion, that accepts and has experienced mistakes.

The sacred work of teshuva, when done thoughtfully, adds to the joy of the holiday. The rabbis of the Mishnah and Talmud teach us that Yom Kippur was joyful because the Israelites were pardoned (Mishnah Ta’anit 4:8 and Babylonian Talmud Ta’anit 30). There even are stories of dancing during Yom Kippur Mincha, because atonement brought about tremendous relief.

The work of teshuva is not all joyful. First we ask forgiveness from each other and own up to our own mistakes. We also find ways to return to God and to forgive ourselves. Once we go through that work, we likely will experience relief and joy.

We are teaching our children that the High Holy Days have wonderful traditions and also teach us about the meaningful, spiritual work of teshuvah. We are teaching joy and resiliency.

Traditions and rituals help us to create family experiences that cultivate a love of the Jewish holidays. When I listen to a family share stories about a loved one before a funeral, often holidays and traditions emerge that provide lasting memories. One person’s famous or infamous matzah balls, a person’s off-key singing, another person’s tashlich ceremony at the local river with breadcrumbs, and gathering schach for the sukkah from the local marshes impact a family’s relationship to Jewish holidays. We often hold the most outrageous of our traditions closest to our hearts.

This Rosh Hashanah we can delight in our apples and honey, honey sticks, children’s programs, junior congregations, big holiday meals, new clothes, songs, and blessings. When we also show our struggles with teshuvah and how challenging it is truly to work on ourselves and own up to our mistakes, we are bringing so much more depth to our families. Instead of the email blasts asking for forgiveness or dismissing or hiding the real work, let’s bring our children into this process with honesty.

Some ideas for teaching children about meaningful apologies involve using creative and developmentally appropriate outlets to share about our mistakes openly. Kids can write their mistakes on paper that gets crumpled up and hurled or burned in a bonfire (under adult supervision) or immersed in water with erasing ink. Writing poems or letters or painting images are other tools that can help children express themselves. If talking about mistakes are hard, there are other ways that they can be shared.

We learn so much from play. If it is difficult for children, especially young children, to share, we can encourage them to use their dolls and action figures to talk out their mistakes first. By giving our children the tools to express mistakes in non-threatening and non-judgmental settings, we are empowering them to speak honestly. Once the mistakes are identified, we can model how freeing it can be to ask for forgiveness from the person we wronged.

This year the High Holy Days fall after the back-to-school rush. We may feel like we are getting settled into our routines and then thrust back into another new beginning. It’s late and it’s early. Another new beginning, another reason to celebrate, and another opportunity to deepen the soul-work of readying ourselves for the yamim noraim.

We have an opportunity to begin again. Let’s bring our entire families in by sharing about our own soul-work this holiday season.

Ariel Russo, the rabbi of CSI Nyack, was educated by the Jewish Theological Seminary of America and inspired by Camp Ramah. In her spare time she wrangles her kids into car seats and explores the lower Hudson region with her husband.

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