How to Think on Rosh Hashanah

Shimon Apisdorf is an Orthodox Rabbi based in Baltimore.  While I don’t always agree with him on theological or political matters, he really, really, really gets the High Holy Days.  His wonderful book, The Rosh Hashanah/Yom Kippur Survival Kit, should be on every Jew’s bookshelf — and in a lot of ways, it should be on the bookshelf of anyone, Jew or not, who cares about having a rewarding spiritual life.  As we move into the Yamim Noraim, I thought I would post his very insightful “Questions for a Meaningful Life,” written to be pondered on Rosh Hashanah — and really, all year.

We wish everyone a Shana Tovah U’metuka.

Questions for a Meaningful Life

1.  When do I feel that my life is most meaningful?

2.  Those who mean the most to me — have I ever told them how I feel?

3.  Are there any ideasl I would be willing to die for?

4.  If I could live my life over, would I change anything?

5.  What would bring me more happiness than anything in the world?

6.  What are my three most significant achievements since last Rosh Hashanah?

7.  What are my three biggest mistakes since last Rosh Hashanah?

8.  What project or goal, if left undone, will I most regret next Rosh Hashanah?

9.  If I knew I couldn’t fail, what would I undertake to accomplish in life?

10.  What are my three major goals in life?  What am I doing to achieve them?  What practical steps can I take in the next two months towards these goals?

11.  If I could only give my children three pieces of advice, what would they be?

Author: Jonathan Zasloff

Jonathan Zasloff teaches Torts, Land Use, Environmental Law, Comparative Urban Planning Law, Legal History, and Public Policy Clinic - Land Use, the Environment and Local Government. He grew up and still lives in the San Fernando Valley, about which he remains immensely proud (to the mystification of his friends and colleagues). After graduating from Yale Law School, and while clerking for a federal appeals court judge in Boston, he decided to return to Los Angeles shortly after the January 1994 Northridge earthquake, reasoning that he would gladly risk tremors in order to avoid the average New England wind chill temperature of negative 55 degrees. Professor Zasloff has a keen interest in world politics; he holds a PhD in the history of American foreign policy from Harvard and an M.Phil. in International Relations from Cambridge University. Much of his recent work concerns the influence of lawyers and legalism in US external relations, and has published articles on these subjects in the New York University Law Review and the Yale Law Journal. More generally, his recent interests focus on the response of public institutions to social problems, and the role of ideology in framing policy responses. Professor Zasloff has long been active in state and local politics and policy. He recently co-authored an article discussing the relationship of Proposition 13 (California's landmark tax limitation initiative) and school finance reform, and served for several years as a senior policy advisor to the Speaker of California Assembly. His practice background reflects these interests: for two years, he represented welfare recipients attempting to obtain child care benefits and microbusinesses in low income areas. He then practiced for two more years at one of Los Angeles' leading public interest environmental and land use firms, challenging poorly planned development and working to expand the network of the city's urban park system. He currently serves as a member of the boards of the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy (a state agency charged with purchasing and protecting open space), the Los Angeles Center for Law and Justice (the leading legal service firm for low-income clients in east Los Angeles), and Friends of Israel's Environment. Professor Zasloff's other major activity consists in explaining the Triangle Offense to his very patient wife, Kathy.

11 thoughts on “How to Think on Rosh Hashanah”

  1. You know, I’ve often thought about thinking about these questions, in much the same way that I’ve thought about setting professional goals and attempting to accomplish them. Now that I’m in my eighth decade I realize that they’re not really that useful to me, nor have they ever been (your mileage may vary). I just followed my nose — into college, graduate school, Post-doc, industry, government, academe, and (semi)retirement. What have been my goals? — well, I look back, see where I started, connect that point to where I am, and assume that that vector exemplifies my “goals.”

    As for leading a moral life, I suppose my compass has always been Hillel’s Silver Rule: Do not do unto others what you would not have them do unto you. And as for advice I give my children. I don’t give any unless asked, and even then I realize that it’s often too much, so now I give less and bite my tongue more.

    And as for the High Holy Days, I no longer partake. The first Yom Kippur after my five-year-old son died I stopped beating my breast in the midst of the “Al Hets” (sins I was asking forgiveness for), and told God that He should be asking for forgiveness of Me. I do, however, retain the feeling of spirituality that comes with the season, but not the stock-taking.

    1. I always wondered what was the point of having some sort of life goal(s). It only makes sense in the context that we planned to have this life in the first place and I don’t remember doing that.

      1. In graduate school, we were told that putting together a life plan for your research was a good way to be successful as an academic. Not the only way, but my observation of the field seems to bear the claim out: some people have scattered efforts that never amount to much (my group), others have a sequence of efforts each of which stands on its own, and some few academics bring together their decades of projects to contribute a single point or theme of discourse. Easier to make your life more than the sum of the individual research projects if you have some idea where you want to go with them and plan accordingly. It’s really impressive – or depressive – to stand back and evaluate Computer Science in those terms.

    2. My condolences on your awful loss.

      I’m an Atheist, but as an Atheist Jew I’ve always rather liked Yom Kippur. Sure, the part you highlight is obnoxious, and your specific tragedy is, more generalized, one reason I refuse to believe in a God worthy of worship – but I like and appreciate the part about how that marathon of browbeating, silly as it is, serves only to expiate your sins against God. To clean your slate of the wrongs you’ve done against your fellow man you’ve got to earn and to seek their forgiveness, and you are given something of a deadline to do so. That’s a pretty good thing.

  2. I’m an Atheist Jew also, and, like you, “I’ve always rather liked Yom Kippur,” too.

    However, my fondness for Yom Kippur is not because of the act of asking for forgiveness. Rather, it’s for the act of granting forgiveness.

    I was fired from a job many years ago, but later, I was told that my boss was guilt stricken by the event and had stated, firing me “was the dumbest thing I had ever done.“ As the years moved along I was told that the boss “never got over it” and mentions it from time to time.

    Anyway, two years ago I just happened to be thinking about him as Yom Kippur approached, and, on the spur of the moment, I sent him a hand written note expressing my feelings. I simply told him how much I enjoyed our relationship during those years, and hoped the upcoming holidays found him and his family in good health and spirits.

    I’ll leave to your imagination the joy that was felt, and expressed, due to that simple act. It is now a permanent part of the rituals associated with the Holiday Season. And, in my case, I discovered it truly is better to give than to receive.

  3. As a moral philosopher who considers himself an atheist but thinks a lot about what makes for a good life, and what we owe to others,as well as about blame and forgiveness, these seem to me wonderful questions. But I am struck by how little they seem to have to do with religion, understood as a doctrine crucially involving belief on a god.

  4. Just as suggestions, not that anyone asked, I would move 9 up to be number 8, and combine 8 and 10 into one question, which would become 9.

    And it’s interesting that 9 isn’t the same as 5: achievements and happiness not being the same thing.

    Or, perhaps 8 should be re-written, to ask what bad thing is coming down the pike that I should do something to prevent, and what should that be? And who can I get to help me?

    I mean, since you’re sitting around doing all this thinking, why not some prevention, too?

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