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THE JEWISH HIGH HOLY DAYS

September 25, 2022

Some years ago, I officiated at a wedding on New Year’s Day.  At the rehearsal the evening before, I commented on how the alignment of the days would make it easier for the groom to remember his wedding anniversary.  The bride said, “Not only that but January 1 is also my birthday.  We’ll have so much to celebrate on one day!”  The Jewish celebration of Rosh Hashanah is the beginning of a new year, a birthday, and a wedding remembrance.

My calendar shows that the Jewish New Year begins at sundown today, Sunday, September 25, 2022.  The Festival of Rosh Hashanah continues through Tuesday, September 27.  Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, is one of Judaism’s holiest days.  Meaning, head of the year or first of the year, the festival begins on the first day of Tishrei, the seventh month of the Hebrew calendar, which falls during September or October.  This new year is 5783 in the Jewish calendar, but Rosh Hashanah is also a birthday and a wedding anniversary.  It is a day to remember the birth of all creation, followed by Adam and Eve’s marital union in scripture.  It is a day of new beginnings filled with reason to celebrate.

Rosh Hashanah emphasizes the special relationship between God and humanity.  We are all dependent upon God as our Creator and Sustainer, and God depends upon us to make his divine presence known and felt in the world.  In the Jewish community, it is the day to honor God as sovereign.

Harvey Cox is a Christian theologian.  His wife, Nina, is Jewish.  In his book, Common Prayers, Cox shares some of the ways that he and Nina have grown spiritually in the context of their interfaith marriage.

His book follows the holidays of the Jewish year, explaining the meaning of each observance.  He begins with the Jewish High Holy Days, the ten Days of Awe that begin with Rosh Hashanah and conclude with Yom Kippur.

Early in the twentieth century, Rudolf Otto, a German philosopher, published The Idea of The Holy.  Otto coined a Latin phrase that has become commonplace in theology, mysterium tremendum et fascinans. Simply put, it means that the mystery of God’s presence evokes a trembling shudder and a sense of fascination.  These holidays remind the Jewish community that God is both awesome and merciful.

Harvey Cox recalls the old-fashioned revivals of his Baptist upbringing.  He remembers the fearful sense of a righteous God and the comforting awareness of divine grace.

He contends both church and synagogue have too often proclaimed a user-friendly God.  Some even rely on marketing strategies to determine what will be included in worship.  The Jewish holidays encourage a reaffirmation of the sovereign God who is righteous and merciful, holy, and loving.    

Our Jewish friends and neighbors will observe their High Holy Days for ten days.  The importance of this season to their faith is akin to the significance of Holy Week for Christians and Ramadan for Muslims. While it would be inappropriate for non-Jews to borrow these holidays, we can certainly strive to understand their significance.  We may also find in them spiritual values that we all share.

Rosh Hashanah marks the first of ten days of repentance or Days of Awe.  A blessing is bestowed on others with the words, “May you be inscribed and sealed for a good year.” As with every major Jewish festival, the Kiddush, a blessing over wine to sanctify the day, is recited after candle lighting and prayers. A blessing is offered to God for the gift of Challah bread.

Central to Rosh Hashanah is the sounding of the shofar, the ram’s horn.  This hollowed-out horn from a sheep or a goat is similar to those used by Joshua at the battle of Jericho and Giddeon when he defeated the Midianites.  While neither Rosh Hashanah nor the ram’s horn is never mentioned explicitly in the Torah, the Hebrew scriptures do refer to this holiday as Yom Teruah, literally a day of shouting or blasting. The blasting of the shofar calls the congregation to worship and to repentance.  The tones of the horn are akin to a trumpet blast heralding the coronation of a king.  The sound is a reminder of the sovereignty of God.

My good friend, Rabbi Yossi Liebowitz, shared a story about an American tourist in Israel.  The traveler asked why his taxi driver had no wristwatch.  How could he know the time?

“I have a shofar.  When I get home late at night, I go out on my porch and sound the ram’s horn loudly.  Within seconds, one of my neighbors will yell: ‘It’s two o’clock in the morning!’”

For the Jewish people, the sound of the shofar means it is time to repent.

Yom Kippur is the holiest, most important day of the year in Judaism, known as the Day of Atonement. This year Yom Kippur begins at sundown Tuesday, October 4, 2022, and ends Wednesday evening, October 5, the last of the ten days of penitence that began with Rosh Hashanah.

Yom Kippur commemorates the day Moses came down from Mount Sinai after seeking God’s divine forgiveness for the Israelites who sinned against him by worshipping an idol of a golden calf.  Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, marks the conclusion of this period of repentance.

Yom Kippur is a day of fasting.  The high holidays often include the concept of the book of life, the Sefer Chayim, in which God records our destinies for the coming year.  Whatever is negative can be avoided through prayer, repentance, and charity.

In the late afternoon on the day before Yom Kippur, honey cake is eaten in acknowledgment that all people are intended to be recipients of God’s goodness.  Gifts are made to charity in the prayerful hope for an abundant year.  Jewish families celebrate by enjoying a meal, blessing the children, and lighting memorial candles as well as holiday candles.  Then families attend an atonement service at the synagogue.

Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the year, is a day of closeness to God.  Scripture defines the purpose of the Day of Atonement: “For on this day He will forgive you, to purify you, that you be cleansed from all your sins before God” (Leviticus 16:30).  Faithful Jews fast from food and drink and abstain from other activities in order to have time for repentance, prayer, and reflection.

For the Jewish community, Yom Kippur is the most solemn day of the year, yet an undertone of thanksgiving is a part of the observance.  Joy derives from the confidence that God will accept the repentance of His people and forgive their sins.  Hope for a year of life, health, and happiness is an integral part of Yom Kippur.

Yom Kippur concludes with a final blast from the shofar.  Jewish families break the fast by enjoying a meal, usually breakfast food.  Who doesn’t enjoy breakfast for supper occasionally?

Many of us learned as children a simple table blessing that begins with the profound affirmation, “God is great, and God is good.”  Perhaps that is an apt summary of the meaning of Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and the days between.

God is great, and God is good.  A great God created and sustains all of life.  In greatness, God presides in sovereign majesty over the entire world.  A good God has provided for us all things necessary for life, compelling us to share with others.  In goodness, God, through grace and mercy, accepts our repentance and forgives our sins.

God is great, and God is good.

Let us thank God, all of us.

Amen.

_______________________________________________________

Kirk H. Neely is a freelance writer, storyteller, teacher, pastoral counselor, and retired pastor.

He can be reached at kirkhneely44@gmail.com.

Stories from this week’s column will appear in the forthcoming book

A Book of Days, to be published in 2023.

Over these past months, I have asked that we contribute to our local charitable agencies.  Thank you for all you have done.  I will continue making suggestions because I have learned that these nonprofit organizations are quickly forgotten unless they are called to mind.  Please continue with your kindness and generosity.  This week, please donate or volunteer, as you are able, to your place of worship or to your favorite charity.

BUTTERFLIES GALORE: FLYING FLOWERS OF FALL

September 17, 2022

Among the visitors to our garden in the early fall is a small, winged creature that I have always called a Carolina skipper. I have recently learned that the correct name is the common checkered skipper. This butterfly is easy to identify by the distinctive white spots on her dark gray wings. True to its name, the diminutive insect skips from one flower to another. While others of her kin will linger for a longer sip of nectar, the checkered skipper moves quickly to the next bloom.

Residents of South Carolina might assume the checkered skipper would be the state butterfly, but that honor goes to the eastern tiger swallowtail. This is among the largest of the butterflies common to the Palmetto State. The eastern tiger swallowtail was adopted in 1994 with the approval of the South Carolina General Assembly. Interestingly, it is also the state butterfly of North Carolina and Georgia.

Swallowtails are named for the extended portion of their hind wings, which resemble a swallow’s tail feathers. Each of the forewings of the eastern tiger swallowtail has four black stripes resembling a tiger. Males are yellow with black stripes. Females can be either yellow or dark gray with the same striped pattern.

Adult butterflies do not eat solid foods as they did in their larval stage. Instead, they sip nectar using a proboscis, a long, tube-shaped tongue.

As I worked in my yard one summer weekend before the COVID pandemic, a spicebush butterfly was my constant companion.   While I stooped to pull weeds, the tiny creature fluttered past time and again. My beautiful visitor danced in circles close by when I stood to stretch. I felt unusually blessed by its presence. 

I stopped for a moment to admire the graceful visitor to our garden. Pausing from my labors, I marveled at the delicate, black butterfly, marked with iridescent blue. Most gardeners in these parts know that by early fall, there are precious few blooms on our tired summer plants.

I mopped sweat from my face with an old, faded bandana as I continued working. I tossed it aside. Moments later, I noticed the spicebush butterfly perched on the flowered rag as if sipping nectar. I realized that my own salty perspiration had attracted the butterfly.

During spring break several years ago, two of our sons and I hiked a portion of the Foothills Trail together. On the second day of our backpacking trip, the pedestrian footpath crossed an equestrian trail. The pungent aroma of horses filled the air. A hundred or more bright yellow tiger swallowtails flittered about us. As we passed among the swirling swarm, we noticed the main attraction just off the trail. It was a pile of fresh horse manure.

As much as I enjoy butterflies, I prefer to think of them as being attracted by flowers rather than human sweat or horse manure.

In our garden, I have included plants known to attract butterflies. We have several butterfly bushes. The summer garden is graced with zinnias and cosmos. In the fall, milkweed, bronze fennel, sedum, and Joe Pye weed are favorite items on the butterfly buffet.

The plant that anchors one corner of our garden is a lantana. The flowers of the plant are enhanced by the fluttering flowers attracted to the bush. Throughout October, pink, yellow, and orange composite flowers cover the spreading lantana. The vibrant colors provide an eye-catching display in the autumn garden. One of the beauties of the lantana is that it is a congregating place for butterflies.

Butterflies are difficult to count because they are constantly on the move. One sunny afternoon last month, I came into our driveway and paused to look at the lantana. I estimated that there were no fewer than thirty on, above, and around the bush. There were several varieties, including majestic monarchs, deep-orange fritillaries, and one red admiral. The lantana, accompanied by a bevy of fluttering guests, made quite a display. 

In our neck of the woods, September and October are peak months for butterflies. As they prepare to migrate, these winged insects drink deeply from the flowers. The nectar provides the energy some of them will need as they fly south for the winter. Many of the monarchs will migrate; many of the others will not. Some of the ones that dance around the flowers in our gardens will spend the winter in Central America.

One morning the week before school started,  I was sitting on the screened back porch with my granddaughters when we noticed a pair of large tiger swallowtail butterflies fluttering from purple cone flowers to orange zinnias to pink phlox. They seemed to be performing a ballet. The bright yellow wings of the butterflies catching the sunlight added a touch of even more beauty to the flowers.

In the late summer, something happens in our garden that is nothing short of amazing. The miracle of metamorphosis occurred yet again this year in our backyard. It’s the season for caterpillars and butterflies. By late summer, our garden is aflutter with butterflies of all varieties. Once they take wing, they are drawn to flowering plants that provide a feast of nectar.

Creating a butterfly garden requires a little planning and some maintenance. And it is well worth the effort. Among the favorites of butterflies are ageratum, aster, butterfly bush, bee balm, black-eyed Susan, catmint, coneflower, coreopsis, cosmos, goldenrods, honeysuckle, hyssop, lantana, marigold, phlox, salvia, sedum, verbena, yarrow, and zinnia.

There are literally millions of species in the biological order Lepidoptera. Every one of them has a larval stage we know best as caterpillars. There are both Jekyll and Hyde varieties. That is to say, some are malevolent while others are benevolent.  

I have a volunteer sunflower in my backyard, now taller than I am. It sprang up when a sunflower seed escaped a birdfeeder and landed in a flowerbed. Out of curiosity, I decided to let it grow. I have recently noticed that several leaves have been chewed to a pulp. I have yet to see the caterpillar that is doing the damage. I imagine his eating binge occurs after dark.

Caterpillars have been rightly called eating machines. They can devour the foliage of plants seemingly overnight. Some cause great destruction and do millions of dollars in damage to agricultural crops ea

The boll weevil has wreaked havoc on cotton crops across the South. Armyworms attack cotton and soybean crops.

Every vegetable gardener knows to be on the lookout for cabbage worms and tomato hornworms. Earlier this summer, I noticed a webbed tent, the characteristic abode of tent caterpillars, on the branch of a pecan tree.

Some caterpillars are desirable. Fishermen know that the delicate purple blossoms of the catalpa tree attract Sphinx moths that lay eggs on the underside of the large green leaves. When the eggs hatch, catalpa worms start eating the leaves of their host plant. Bream fishermen treasure these tiny worms because bluegills and shellcrackers consider them to be such a delicacy.

Other caterpillars are raised because of their economic importance. The silkworm is perhaps the best example. The minute threads produced by the silkworms are used to make valuable cloth that can be fashioned into fine garments. Most of my old neckties were created from the secretion of caterpillars.

In my garden, I have planted bronze fennel. With their lacy leaves, the dark green plants make a lovely backdrop. The fragrance reminds me of licorice.   I have fennel in my garden because it is a favorite host plant for a particular kind of caterpillar, the larvae of the swallowtail butterfly, our early morning visitor. 

Near the back of our property grows a patch of wildflowers. There is some goldenrod, but more importantly, there is milkweed. The orange blossoms of the milkweed plant attract monarch butterflies. They lay their eggs on the leaves. The larvae eventually become butterflies. These orange and black beauties are migratory. The majestic insects fly 3000 miles each fall to winter in the high mountains of central Mexico. In the spring, they wing their way back to North America. 

All butterflies begin life as caterpillars. After a time of chewing on leaves, they hang upside down and shroud themselves in the silken case they spin. In this chrysalis stage, they resemble a dead leaf until the moment comes when they emerge from their cocoon. Spreading their newly formed wings, they fly away, gloriously transformed. 

This metamorphosis has made butterflies a reminder of new life. They are beautiful symbols of hope. Sometimes butterflies are released at weddings, just as the bride and groom are pronounced husband and wife, to mark the beginning of their new life together. Early Christians saw in the butterfly as an apt symbol for the resurrection. For several years a church in my hometown followed the Eater worship service by having the children release painter lady butterflies. This weary world needs as much hope as we can find. Butterflies are gentle blessings, tender mercies from a divine creative hand.

I vividly remember the funeral service for a woman who loved butterflies. She had decorated her home with a butterfly theme. She tended a unique butterfly garden in her backyard designed to attract her flying flowers, as she called them. 

After her death following an extended illness, it was only natural at her memorial service to emphasize her enjoyment of butterflies. Some flower arrangements sent by friends and family included silk butterflies. At the cemetery on a mountainside in Western North Carolina, the crowning touch to her service came as a complete surprise. As I finished reading the scripture, a monarch butterfly danced into the funeral tent and descended upon the Bible I held in my hands. The tiny orange and black creature perched like a bookmark between the opened pages. For a few silent moments, we marveled in amazement.

There is just no telling what will attract a butterfly.

I sat in the backyard of an older man who had cultivated an active butterfly garden for several years. The man had just learned that he was dying of cancer.

The autumn afternoon offered a gentle breeze and warm sunshine. We sat in lawn chairs next to his butterfly garden. The place was alive with flying flowers. Checkered skippers, spicebush, swallowtails, monarchs, buckeyes, and a mourning cloak all sipped nectar from the array of blooms.

We sat in silence for a time before he spoke.

“They’re beautiful, aren’t they?”

“Yes,” I agreed.

After a long pause, I added, “You know the Church has long regarded the butterfly as a symbol of resurrection.”

After a few thoughtful moments, he said, “No wonder I enjoy them so much.”

_______________________________________________________

Kirk H. Neely is a freelance writer, storyteller, teacher, pastoral counselor, and retired pastor.

He can be reached at kirkhneely44@gmail.com.

Stories from this week’s column will appear in the forthcoming book

Cultivating the Spirit: Devotions from the Garden, to be published later this year.

Over these past months, I have asked that we contribute to our local charitable agencies. Thank you for all you have done. I will continue making suggestions because I have learned that these nonprofit organizations are quickly forgotten unless they are called to mind. Please continue with your kindness and generosity. This week, please donate or volunteer as you are able, to Hope Center for Children, P.O. Box 1731, Spartanburg, South Carolina, 29304, 864.583.7688, https://hopecfc.org/.

REMEMBERING SEPTEMBER 11, 2001

September 11, 2022

Today marks the twenty-first anniversary of one of the most horrific days of terror in American history. Al-Qaeda operatives targeted the World Trade Center’s twin towers, the Pentagon, and probably the White House. Nineteen foreign agents hijacked four commercial jetliners and turned them into guided missiles of war. The planes, each fueled to capacity, were bound for California. Nearly three thousand people died in the attacks.

I taught in the Religion Department at the University of South Carolina Upstate as an adjunct professor for ten years. I taught the introductory level course, Comparative Religion. Many of my students were not even born before September 11, 2001.

A line from the musical South Pacific is a poignant reminder of how people become prejudiced.

Children have to be taught to hate and to fear.

They have to be carefully taught.

In the opening lecture of my class, I made it clear to the students that we would approach the study of world religions with respect for all people regardless of their faith orientation. This is a necessary prerequisite if the journey leads beyond tolerance to a genuine understanding of faiths other than our own. In my opinion, this approach is a much-needed corrective to our current national mindset.

Perhaps never before in my lifetime has there been a more intense atmosphere of doubt and suspicion in our nation. After the atrocities of Adolph Hitler’s Germany, many Americans were guarded in our encounters with people of German heritage, even our fellow citizens. Following the bombing of Pearl Harbor, many Americans became suspicious of people of Japanese origin.   The Cold War kept us on edge in our dealings with those of Russian descent.

Yet how deprived we would be without the musical compositions of Germans Georg Philipp Telemann, Johann Sebastian Bach, George Frederic Handel, Ludwig von Beethoven, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Felix Mendelssohn, and Robert Schumann.

Think of our poverty without the music of Russians Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, Sergei Rachmaninoff, and Igor Stravinsky or the writings of their countrymen Leo Tolstoy, Vladimir Nabokov, Anton Chekhov, and Fyodor Dostoevsky.

The art and culture of Japan have long enriched American life. While we have had legitimate reasons to regard the governments of other countries at certain times as enemies, we have also found among those same people individuals who have made our lives better.

On the anniversary of 9/11, Americans will pause to remember the day when the twin towers fell in New York City, the Pentagon burned in Washington, D.C., and a field in Pennsylvania became a charred grave. It is impossible to erase the mental images of the destruction of these important landmarks. Our overwhelming sense of loss and grief is even more difficult after all these years.

In worship services and symphony concerts, at baseball games and football games, at community events and candlelight vigils, we will remember.   The violent acts of al-Qaeda terrorists that turned our commercial jet planes into instruments of war changed our lives forever.

But, this was not just an attack against America.

The 2,977 victims who died that day were not only Americans. The World Trade Center brought together people from all over the globe. More than ninety countries lost citizens in the Twin Towers. This horror was unleashed not only against America. It was also a strike against the world.

We remember those who died and the more than 6,000 who were treated for nonfatal injuries. We remember the spouses and children of the victims, the parents, the siblings, and the friends who, even now, twenty-one years later, continue to grieve.

We remember the heroic men and women who worked to save, rescue, recover, nurse, feed, and console the victims. Some gave their lives in the effort, becoming victims themselves. Many others have since become causalities of war, protecting and defending our national interest.

Like most of you, I remember that day well. I was driving to Morningside Baptist Church on the morning of September 11, 2001, when my wife, Clare, called me on my cell phone. “You need to turn on a television when you get to the church,” she said.

I telephoned the church office. The staff already had a TV on in the office.

When I arrived, a crowd had gathered. We all watched in dismay as the second jet plane struck the second tower of the World Trade Center.

The events of that day were confusing and confounding. President George W. Bush was reading to a group of children in Florida when he received the news of the devastation. I, along with many other Americans, will never forget the expression on his face.

I had been asked to open the luncheon meeting of a civic club later that day with a devotion and a prayer. As I considered what to say to that distinguished group of community leaders, a hymn kept coming to mind. My devotion was brief. My prayer included some of the words of a favorite hymn by Martin Luther:

Though this world, with evil filled, should threaten to undo us,

               We will not fear, for God hath willed His truth to triumph through us. 

               The Prince of Darkness grim, we tremble not for him;

               His rage we can endure, for lo, his doom is sure….

The body they may kill; God’s truth abideth still;

               His kingdom is forever.

               Hatred is the motive behind terrorism. Terrorism evokes fear. Fear is the root of prejudice. Prejudice creates adversaries. An adversarial relationship promotes hatred. This vicious cycle must be broken. Otherwise, we become like terrorists, and they will have defeated us.

               A few days after September 11, 2001, Clare and I drove to Greenville. We had seen reports indicating that Americans were reacting with hostility toward Muslim citizens of this country and people who looked like Muslims. Non-Muslim men who wore turbans, like the Sikhs, were victims of violence. Palestinians, even those who were American citizens, had come under suspicion and even under attack. About one-third of all Palestinians are Christians and make up the majority of Palestinian refugees. Many have come to America and have become citizens.

               Before the coronavirus pandemic, Clare and I often enjoyed eating at the Pita House in Greenville. The restaurant, owned and operated by a Palestinian family, serves sumptuous Middle Eastern food. We wanted to visit them and let them know of our support. When we arrived, the establishment was decked out with American flags. I spoke with the brothers, who are the owners. They felt the same horror and grief that other Americans felt. Yet they feared that they might be targeted by those who had become so suspicious and fearful.

               Speaking to the nation following a long day of uncertainty, President George W. Bush addressed America.

A great people has been moved to defend a great nation. Terrorist attacks can shake the foundations of our biggest buildings, but they cannot touch the foundation of America. These acts shattered steel, but they cannot dent the steel of American resolve. America was targeted for attack because we’re the brightest beacon for freedom and opportunity in the world. And no one will keep that light from shining….

America and our friends and allies join with all those who want peace and security in the world, and we stand together to win the war against terrorism. Tonight, I ask for your prayers for all those who grieve, for the children whose worlds have been shattered, for all whose sense of safety and security has been threatened. And I pray they will be comforted by a power greater than any of us, spoken through the ages in Psalm 23: “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil, for You are with me.”

Those who died on 9/11 will help us remember an important truth. No one lives, suffers, or dies in vain.   Even as we remain vigilant in a world of terror, such acts of hatred will not defeat us. Love is the greatest power in the world. We cannot allow terror to lead us to suspicion and hatred. Our best response to the atrocities of 9/11 is to become more loving toward all people. It is the only way to conquer fear and hate within the human soul.

The words of a prayer by the late South African Bishop Desmond Tutu ring true:

Good is stronger than evil;

Love is stronger than hate;

Light is stronger than darkness;

Life is stronger than death.

Victory is ours, through Him who loves us.

Amen.

_______________________________________________________

Kirk H. Neely is a freelance writer, storyteller, teacher, pastoral counselor, and retired pastor.

He can be reached at kirkhneely44@gmail.com.

This column will be included in the forthcoming book entitled

A Book of Days: A year of Devotional Meditations.

The publication date is 2023 or 2024.

Over these past months, I have asked that we contribute to our local charitable agencies. Thank you for all you have done. I will continue making suggestions because I have learned that these nonprofit organizations are quickly forgotten unless they are called to mind. Please know that I respect your freedom to choose agencies that are meaningful to you. Please continue with your kindness and generosity. This week, please donate, as you are able, to Speaking Down Barriers, PO Box 7133, Spartanburg, South Carolina 29304, info@speakdownbarriers.org,

803-526-7496.