Growing up, I seldom thought about my dad’s relatives. He had one brother who lived on the west coast, and neither of his parents had siblings nearby. Plus his mother, Alice, was the youngest in her family by many years, so her nieces and nephews were her peers and my dad hardly knew them. Imagine my surprise when Alice presented me with the Paris contact information for one of her nieces, Mary Schubert Maury, as I prepared to study abroad in France during college. A woman about 20 years my senior, Mary proved to be a delightful relative to discover. She had met her French husband during a global tour as a young adult, and when they married, she moved to France. It took a little time to fully comprehend our family tree; in the process I learned the names and birth order of my grandmother’s five siblings. It turned out that Mary’s grandmother was mine’s oldest sister, so we are second cousins. Forging a connection in Paris later led to new contacts with Mary’s sister and cousins in Chicago and Milwaukee during grad school at Northwestern. It was like the change from black and white film to Technicolor. Suddenly my heritage was more colorful and vibrant with stories of really interesting people. My sense of family identity expanded.
The adult education classes on Judaism that I’m taking this year elicit a similar reaction. As we move through the lessons, there’s a continual sense of similarity and difference. Recently I was struck by the resonance of themes between the Jewish High Holy Days of Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur observed in the fall, and the closing of the Christian liturgical year during November. On these Sundays, we hear scripture readings pointing to the end times in rather a warning tone. Like the 10 bridesmaids, we are to be ready with our lamps lit, extra oil on hand. We’re reminded further of ultimate judgment on the basis of our use of resources (“talents”) or, coming up this Sunday, our actions toward others. On this final week of the liturgical year, the feast of Christ the King, the separation of sheep from goats emphasizes that entrance into this kingdom requires care and concern for the most vulnerable.
In Judaism, Rosh HaShanah starts off the holy season with a celebratory theme, but that element of judgment also presents itself. The feast is ordered by God in Lev. 23:23-25 as a sacred occasion of rest commemorated with “loud blasts” from sounding the shofar (ram’s horn). “Wake up!” A greeting for the day says, “May you be inscribed and sealed for a good year,” because it’s believed that people’s deeds are recorded in the Book of Life.” The ten days between Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur, the day of atonement, are a time of repentance, because The Book of Life will be sealed on Yom Kippur. As Rosh HaShanah evolved, it also came to mark God’s creation of the universe and kingship over it. In biblical times, trumpet blasts marked the anniversary of the king’s reign.
The words of the 12th century Jewish philosopher Moses Maimonides about the implications of sounding the shofar seem apt as we anticipate Advent: “Those of you who have lost sight of the truth because you are distracted from it by transitory vanities, and have instead consumed your entire year with empty and futile pursuits that will not bring deliverance, look well into yourselves and improve your behavior.” (Mishneh Torah, Laws of Repentance 3:4)