Weekly Message 10-10-08

10 October 2008
11 Tishrei 5769  
Shalom Chaverim, 

It is hard for me to believe that we have emerged from the intensity of the last 40 days of teshuva, beginning with the month of Elul, moving through the Aseret Yamei HaTeshuva (the ten days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur), and culminating yesterday with Yom Kippur itself. As I prayed, sang and danced with my community nearly all day yesterday I felt a combination of elation and exhaustion. I admit that as I write this week’s message, I find myself still in the half-exhausted, half-euphoric state of Yom Kippur afterglow, wanting to bask in what we accomplished yesterday and struggling with the fact that we have to get back to “normal” life this morning. The Jewish calendar, of course, does not permit us to let down. Our next two weeks are anything but normal, and we have little time to relax if we are to move on to the preparations for Shabbat and our next holiday, Sukkot, which requires us to build our sukkah, acquire an Etrog and Lulav, and prepare festive meals beginning Monday night.  

So how do we do it? How do we transition back to reality from the extraordinary high of Yom Kippur – the day, the moment of the joyous singing of B’Shanah Haba’ah B’Yerushalayim (Next Year in Jerusalem) – toward which we have worked for weeks? For me, this connects to another question about Yom Kippur: if teshuva (repentance, introspection, self-reflection and self-improvement) is something that we are supposed to do every day (which, by the way, it is – see the fifth blessing of the Amidah, the core of our daily prayer service), why do we have one time period a year, culminating in one day, that seems to be the end-all and be-all of the teshuva process? As I make the transition back this morning from penitent to educator, I can’t help but see in both of these questions parallels to an ongoing educational discussion about tests and exams. If we are regularly assessing students’ learning and our teaching (known as “formative” assessment, which occurs during and along the way of the learning process), why do we place such emphasis on large tests and especially final exams (know as “summative” assessments, which usually occur at the conclusion of a learning process as a summation of what students know and are able to do)? I can think of few better comparisons for Yom Kippur than to a final exam except, perhaps, to the fifth game of a championship squash match!  

As a matter of fact, as I reflect again on that combination of emotions I felt last night and still feel this morning – excitement, almost euphoria and relief, almost disbelief that it is over – I can viscerally recall how it used to feel to finish my final exams in high school just before a school vacation. Once, I had several exams at the end of one week followed by one or two SSAT’s (subject area standardized tests) on the weekend: I vividly remember finishing my last SSAT and sitting on a bench outside school with the surreal sense of accomplishment and utter freedom as I went from having the world on my shoulders to not a care or responsibility in the world.  

As a community, we can and should discuss the efficacy of formative and summative assessments for learning; but, perhaps the rituals of both Yom Kippur and final exams are more than assessments of our teshuva process and our learning. They are also rituals.  Our Jewish tradition and our society are well aware of the human need to ride this roller-coaster of emotions. Highs and lows, periods of intensity and stress, as well as periods of let-down and relief, keep us fresh and our emotions alive; they make life anything but static as we go through periods of seriousness and rigor and also experience moments of freedom and joyous reflection on and celebration of what we have accomplished.  

The challenge, for me, has always been how to translate the joy and relief of concluding Yom Kippur or finishing a final exam into an energized and renewed perspective on life and a productive use of my new-felt freedom, rather than entering brain and body shut-down mode. The extreme and the risk of the summative assessment model are that we reserve all our work for the “big day” rather than live each day more moderately, seeking ongoing, albeit less dramatic, opportunities for learning and growth. While relaxing or decompressing, as I like to call it, is important, we need to avoid coming home from synagogue after Yom Kippur, after forty days (or ten days, or one day) of a teshuva process, and collapsing on our couches in front of the Red Sox game for the entire rest of the post season, only to realize just before Thanksgiving (or Hannukah, or Purim), “oh no, it’s exam time again!” 

And this, to me, is the beauty of Sukkot. It is an opportunity for us to ride the wave of Yom Kippur into a different kind of holiday, which asks us to focus our attention on mitzvot, family and community with joy and a healthy perspective about life. Perhaps next week I will reflect on how the joy of Sukkot compares to and contrasts with the joy of watching sports. This week, however, as we enter Shabbat and as we prepare for Sukkot, may the spiritual hard work of the past several weeks and the relief we feel after Yom Kippur translate into a rejuvenated sense of freedom and perspective, and a joyous and productive beginning to this New Year for all of us.  

Shabbat Shalom and an early Chag Sameach, 

Rabbi Marc Baker 

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