Some thoughts and topics for discussion in your home, group or classroom. We also suggest that you look over "Let's Talk About It" in our Yom Kippur material, since there is some overlap.

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What's In A Sound?

Hearing the shofar is a mitva or obligation, so it deserves some attention as to its meaningfulness today. How do the various sounds of the shofar make us feel? What may these sounds bring to mind or represent? For but one example, think about whole and in pieces, short/busy/full, long and focused, various tempos. A call to wake up, a call to take stock and review, a call to make amends, improve, re-start better…

If you drew a simple shofar, and wrote such thoughts and feelings (or even colors) coming out of it, which would come out of each type of blast?

Rabbi Isaiah Horowitz of the 17th century once noted that each series of shofar blasts starts and ends with a long "whole" note. Think of bookends always bracketing the shorter "broken up" notes. Compare this to human nature, teshuva, and trying to do better. 

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Roots and Models of Our Past

Remember we mentioned in our information section about visiting graves of relatives and teachers this time of year? That visit aside or in tandem - pull out the family photos. "Visit" the memories and examples of those we love and esteem. A life well-lived can help inform us in looking back over at our own. Let this galvanize each of us to learn from both positive role models and from human error and mistakes as well.

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Between Ruling and Guiding

The literature of the service for this chag / holiday often looks at two "faces" of God – that of ruler and that of loving parent/teacher. Also one sees the duality of stern authority and that of "guiding the way" and also "giving another chance" associated with a measure of understanding and potential mercy (although of course sincere personal effort is required in either case). The same stern versus more flexible framework appears in parental roles and in those with positions of authority and responsibility in general. When is strict adherence most important and when is compassion and mercy, and where is the balance? How does one's child feel about this, if "putting on the shoes" of the authority figure? And like in any contract, reciprocally - what does one's child or student feel to be her own duties? How do they view the concept of responsibility? Of consequences? Of reasonable error? Of learning from mistakes?

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Yetzer Hara and Yetzer Hatov

We can become the bound subjects of our more negative tendencies - yetzer hara, to our vices, to the material world, etc. When we are called upon to accept and recommit to God as our universal ruler, we can also view this as turning more towards and reinvigorating the yetzer hatov within us, in a stronger renewed dialogue and relationship with God. However, the situation of what is good or bad is not always quite so black or white. A "bad" tendency or quality in one situation can be a vital positive attribute in another situation, like stubbornness, patience, quickness, careful attention to detail… (Sometimes a quality is more an issue of when and how much, similar in a sense to when and how much salt to use in this or that). When we are reviewing ourselves, our strengths, weaknesses, improvements, such variable "good's" and "bad's" also need to be taken into account. Even with a young child, one can start discussing this in terms of "when is that a good thing (if ever)?" and "when is that a bad thing (if ever)?” "What does improving or changing something (or yourself) or controlling a tendency better mean?"… 

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What is the Meaning of Judgment, and Is a Mistake Always "Wrong"?

There is much in our liturgy about God judging us. But it's not exactly like we get such a direct line and bill of deeds each year. We have to work at it somewhat within ourselves. And that is also part of "taking responsibility" for ourselves. So then how should we judge ourselves? For that matter, [for better or worse] on what bases do our peers/friends tend to judge us? On what bases do our parents or children tend to judge us? Here is an interesting viewpoint for a child, if you have a pet. How do our pets judge us? Because they do not make the same detours in thinking or in what they consider important that people might.

What constitutes real "sin" to you? Or a weakness, strength, talent, failing, mistake?

What does it mean to learn from a mistake? What sins or mistakes in your personal inventory are repairable and how, and which are not?

Why is it sometimes hard to forgive someone? What are some positive points about doing so? (and when might it be necessary to let go of a friendship or alter the boundaries somehow instead of just forgiving?)

Sometimes "mistake" gets… well, mistaken - like a bum rap. Our children should also understand there are such things as "good mistakes"- like when you get increasingly closer to the mark when learning and figuring out something. They are not something to hide, nor hide behind ("I can't do it"). Sometimes it isn't even until one makes a specific kind of mistake that one is freed to actually find the real problem and a good, suitable solution - kind of like "so much for that idea…whoa, that didn't work because…wait...eureka!"

An ongoing process of improvement

So when we look at reassessing our past and where we are headed, we should think more in the manner of an ongoing process of improvement. In fact, from year to year, instead of seeing it like a circle, we hopefully over longer time are moving on an upward spiral of betterment. Meaning that this is not the same as becoming brand new each year, making a January 1 resolution kind of thing of "passed it" / "failed it", "that's it" and done.

This is Judaism's "handy time of year" to nudge us to be thoughtfully reviewing, working things through, making an effort, and sincerely acting on it. And given people's usual yearly schedules, the end of summer and start of fall are an excellent time for this.

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Akedat Yitzchak / The Binding of Isaac

Look over the story about the binding of Isaac [Genesis 22], which is read on the second day in the synagogue. How do you react to hearing this, how does it make you feel? At the time, human sacrifice likely still existed in some parts, so obviously this story provided a message needing sending. However, viewed now in our own times, what other interpretations and messages might one glean from this situation, its participants, the concept of failings, how relationships are shaped, what faith does and does not require? (For that matter, some things have not changed as much as we might think- we certainly can see that in current day examples, like from the daily news, where one may go way overboard in a belief or directive).

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Bible as the "Real Deal"

Deeply believing, while also sometimes dubious. Sarah

On the first day of Rosh HaShana, we read, among other events, about those leading to Isaac's birth. Abraham gets shown as more of a paragon of steadfast faith in contrast to Sarah, who for example was skeptical of bearing a son at such an advanced age. Indeed, she named her son "laughed" to commemorate a quite understandable initial reaction. So Sarah could be both deeply devoted and believing while also sometimes dubious. Compare that so-human bundle of contradictions in the mother of our people to our patriarch who would bind and hold a knife over his son in the name of faith. Yet it should be remembered that this same man would also look for the good in people and stick out his neck trying to bargain with God to save lives in other situations. Both were flawed in their own ways, yet also revolutionary, and as "first parents" of our people, serve as fascinating models particularly at this time of year

Compare our Biblical models to current common heroes of popular, instant media culture, or saints, etc., and the differences are plain. Whether one personally takes the Bible literally or not, its models are portrayed more as profiles of "real" people. Given that this is whom we must deal with in ourselves, such examples can actually be more helpful. And these are the kinds of people we should be looking at in the current world as well, and forget more of the hectic spin and flash.