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Daniel Tilson: Reflections on the Jewish holidays and the Yellow Brick Road

I woke up to the distant sound of television last Thursday morning, the first day of Rosh Hashanah, and headed to the family room to join my wife and daughter, figuring I’d find a Disney Channel show in progress. Instead, I was momentarily flummoxed to find them raptly wrapped up in the first 15 minutes of “The Wizard Of Oz”.

 It didn’t seem wrong or anything like that, not at all. It was just…so unexpected.

 I smiled and said too loudly, “Good Morning, Happy New Year!”

 But what I was thinking was, “Isn’t ‘The Wizard Of Oz’ for Christmas, or Easter…or Thanksgiving?” My savvy wife saw the wheels turning behind my still woozy eyes and preemptively pleaded, “Please don’t change it, I paid for it on demand!”

 Now I was really confused. “Isn’t it free somewhere on demand, or on Netflix or Amazon or something?” I asked, while hearing myself be a nudge and making a mental note that Rosh Hashanah was a good time to commit to being less of a nudge this year.

 Now suffice it to say, I wasn’t expecting to walk in and find my wife and daughter debating the Torah while dutifully dusting off the shofar. For one thing, my wife is Unitarian. And our 7-year-old comes by her Judaism mostly by way of being drawn into dad’s perennial bursts of atheism-influenced observance of the “big” Jewish holidays.

 And none of them are bigger and holier than Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, which mark the beginning and end of the ten “Days Of Awe”. It’s a time to take stock of how you have lived life over the past year, repent for your sins, pray for forgiveness, seek reconciliation, do good deeds, and pledge to do better in the new year.

 If all goes according to plan, then by the time the Yom Kippur fasting is over and the feasting begins this Friday night, you come out cleansed, renewed and ready to be “inscribed and sealed for a good year” into the “Book Of Life” by…well, by you know who.

 While not believing in you know who or any other literal Supreme Being, or in any literal “Book Of Life”, I do still embrace the introspection, aspiration and transformative potential that are at the root of all the ripe religious symbolism so rife during these high holy days. And so I seek my own ways to honor, observe and share the meaning and value of them with my daughter. Which brings me back to “The Wizard Of Oz”.

 I stood there in front of the TV for a minute on Rosh Hashanah morning, watching Dorothy and Toto in pre-twister black and white mode. Then I turned to watch the wife and child taking in the same iconic words and images. Then I smiled and headed off to brush my teeth and shave, musing that there might in fact be an entirely unintentional “observance” underway after all.

 It suddenly seemed like something so right, seeing all the religiosity through a more magical metaphorical prism.

 “If I only had the brains not to have said or done some of the dumb or selfish or mean things I said and did…” Or, “If I only had the heart to be more compassionate, empathetic and accepting of others, to be more giving…” Or, “If I only had the courage to speak up and out more about what’s going wrong in our town, city, state and country, more willing to take a stand and fight for what’s right…

 A stretch? Sure…maybe.

 But when my daughter and I shared our traditional version of the Rosh Hashanah Tashlich ceremony by walking to the lake down the road, standing dockside, remembering and then symbolically “casting off” our misdeeds of the past year by throwing fistfuls of bread crumbs to the fish and turtles down below…well, I couldn’t help but invoke the spirits of the Scarecrow, the Tin Man, and the Cowardly Lion.

 And my daughter seemed to get it…sort of. Or just did a fine job of humoring me. As we walked back to the house, she asked what tune I was whistling, and when I told her it was “If I Only Had A Brain”, she laughed and said “Dad, you are sooo weird…”

 Anyway, here’s to hoping that by the time Yom Kippur comes and goes for another year, all the observant (in whatever way) Jews out there have successfully followed their own Yellow Brick Roads and found within themselves a little more brains, heart and courage to put to good use in the year ahead.

 And what the heck, here’s to wishing the same for all the non-observant Jews out there too, and for all the non-Jews as well…even if it takes until Lent, Ramadan, Buddhist enlightenment, whatever the case may be.

 After all, the great lesson learned from Oz (and high holy days in any religion?), may well be that whatever better part of ourselves we’re looking for when we look for “The Wizard” behind the curtain, is already waiting to be found right behind those eyes looking back at us in the mirror every morning.

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