Stocking up on Humility

Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish new year, was last week. It is followed by the ten Days of Awe, a time for reflection and repentance leading up to Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.

I always thought it was a particularly Jewish approach to things, to have the biggest day of celebration followed almost immediately by the Day of Atonement, as if to say, “be happy, but not too happy….”

As I was sitting in temple during the Rosh Hashanah service, I found myself reflecting on conversations I’ve had with Jewish friends in the past few weeks about Judaism as an identity and culture versus Judaism as a religion. These friends spoke proudly of their Jewish identity, while also expressing skepticism of the role that Jewish religious practice plays, or should play, as a core part of that identity.

It turns out that these friends represent a broader trend: according to a 2015 Pew study, while the Jewish population as a whole is stable, it is also thinning out in the middle: there’s growth in highly observant Orthodox Jews and growth in people who consider themselves Jewish but who are non-religious.

This got me thinking about whether we can fully untangle Jewish (or other religions’) identity from the religious practice of Judaism. What role do the prayers themselves, and the act of going to temple, play in my own sense of identity, as a Jew and as a human being?

I don’t have any simple answers. What I know is that I personally have contradictory experiences when I go to temple: each individual moment, and each individual prayer, don’t make complete sense to me, but overall I get a feeling of warmth, of belonging, of reflection, of community, and of meaning-making that feel foundational to who I am and how I show up in the world.

What struck me in particular this year was that going to services is a great way to stock up on humility.

Whatever your belief in a specific divine presence, there is wonder and awe and beauty in the world that is much bigger than any one of us. The words of nearly every prayer are successive reminders that there are much bigger forces at work than me, a single small human being. Whether that “something bigger” is a divine presence, the laws of nature, or simply the millions of years of life on this planet that came before I showed up, the prayers are a heck of a reminder for all of us not to get too big for our britches, not to think too highly of our own lives, and not to give ourselves too much credit for our roles in the things we have accomplished. They are also a reminder of wisdom passed down through the generations: about right and wrong, about asking for forgiveness, about remembering to bow our heads to forces bigger than us.

Whether we need religious practice itself to remind us of these things is a separate question. But it cannot be a bad thing, for all of us who care about our ongoing development as leaders, to have ritualized, sacred practices through which we are reminded to be humble.

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