What You Can Learn from the Jewish Holidays

I start with a few provisos. First, I recognize that a high percentage of my readership subscribes to a faith other than Judaism or subscribes to no faith at all. Second, the Jewish High Holidays — marked by Rosh Hashanah (the new year) and then 10 days later Yom Kippur (day of atonement) — are terribly inconvenient for me. My annual conference is usually immediately afterward, so during a period where there are not enough hours in the day for me to prepare, I must take off three evenings and two full days to observe these holidays. I also know that I annoy other Jews by scheduling the conference so close to the holidays. So all in all, this time of year is just a real PITA for me.

So here’s my question: is that a good thing or a bad thing?

I could certainly spin it for you. Let’s look at next Wednesday, Oct 12. I will leave for the conference venue just five days later, so things could not possibly be more chaotic. We will be packing up supplies, communicating with our team and our vendors, arranging dozens of shipments, and dealing with an unknown but certain number of crises. Meanwhile, I will be preparing the six seminars that I will be leading, in addition to my hosting duties, and packing my own belongings for nearly two weeks on the road. If I were still in college, this would be why all-nighters were invented. At my age, impeccable scheduling of work, rest, and nourishment will be imperative.

But no. On that day, I will do none of those things. Regarded as the holiest date on the Jewish calendar, Yom Kippur is not a joyous holiday; it is a solemn one. On that day, instead of working, I will be spending all day at our local congregation. Instead of eating, I will be fasting. Instead of resting, I will be sitting in upright chairs in close proximity to others, acutely aware of the fact that I neither showered nor brushed my teeth that morning. Above all, instead of tending to hundreds of conference details, many of which tremendously rewarding, instead of getting excited for the Presentation Summit, I will be reflecting on how I have wronged people and how I have not lived up to my potential. By decree, I will be unproductive, uncomfortable, hungry, and miserable. And happy holidays to you, too.

It is not hard to make the argument that the Jewish High Holidays are nothing but a ginormous headache for me. I can do that with my eyes closed. It is much more challenging to find meaning and fulfillment in these work stoppages, and seemingly impossible to argue that my preparation is actually helped by these scheduling catastrophes.

I consider it out of bounds to explain that I am fueled by the strength of God or by the fulfillment of spirit that comes with living more religiously. Those are inappropriate arguments to make before a secular readership, and they would hold zero meaning for many of you. I want this to be more grounded in practical relevance, and so I turn to two of the core tenets of Jewish observance:

  • The High Holidays are for reflection, both inward and outward. They are a time to adjust the lenses we use to see life and to see ourselves. We are instructed to try to look at the things we always look at but see them in a different way.
  • A person’s relationship with another person is as important as a person’s relationship with God.

These precepts hold tremendous meaning for me when I stand before an audience. Little is more important than conveying to my audience members that I am completely devoted to them, that for the next 60 minutes, nothing else in the world matters to me but them. That is not an easy task because life usually intervenes in some way when we give presentations. Maybe our slides aren’t quite right, maybe our shoes are uncomfortable, maybe the slide clicker’s battery is about to die. Or maybe we are just really nervous. Heaven knows there are plenty of barriers that get created between public speakers and their audiences.

A new lens helps. With a new lens, you might realize that audiences root for you to succeed. With a new lens, you might begin to appreciate that audiences respond better to warmth and humanity than to polish and poise. And above all, a new lens might help you get a clue that speaking in public is not really about you at all!

Reflecting on my lot in life, with my stomach growling, reminds me that my audience members do not need for me to be perfect and they don’t need for my slides to be paragons of design brilliance. They need me to be 100% present and to bring purpose and passion to my story. Sitting in a sanctuary all day, tired and uncomfortable, might not help me pack my suitcase better, but it does help me think about how I regard my audience members, how I am accountable to them and responsible for their experience. These are lessons that cannot be learned often enough, and while once a year might not be enough, I am grateful for the annual reboot that these holidays impose upon me.

It would certainly make my life easier if this reboot took place in the spring. But having the single biggest opportunity for personal epiphany take place immediately before my single biggest professional pursuit? That’s priceless.

 

 

12 Comments

  1. Krystal Kelley on Oct 4, 2016 at 12:56 pm

    I absolutely love this. Thank you for sharing.

  2. Susan Lapczynski on Oct 4, 2016 at 1:10 pm

    A wonderfully thoughtful, well written, and meaningful commentary! Looking forward to the conference and Happy New Year!

  3. Patty Morris on Oct 4, 2016 at 1:16 pm

    Rick, I know you didn’t post that to elicit sympathy from any of us (mainly because you don’t expect to receive any)! But as a pretty serious Catholic (PSC), I, for one, applaud your commitment to your faith, in whatever shape that comes in. Let me be one of the many to remind you, how lucky you are to even have this problem! My faith reminds me daily that Christ/God is in each one of us…and, if your relationship with God is what it should be, all other relationships will be everything you need them to be! (I would have to argue your point about other relationships being as important as your relationship with God, but I get your point loud and clear!) Happy holidays! I wish you much peace during the holidays!

  4. Russ Pagel on Oct 4, 2016 at 2:45 pm

    Well done Rick. Without a push, none of us would take time to reflect but it’s that reflection that opens us up to creativity versus simply slogging our way through the tasks and responsibilities we face each day.

  5. Madeline Rosenstein on Oct 4, 2016 at 3:14 pm

    Isn’t it ironic that during the most frantic time of your life, you are also directed to sit, be still and look within? How many of us get that chance? You touch others’ lives in such a positive way, and that is something to appreciate in your meditation.

  6. Georgia Lee Barnes on Oct 4, 2016 at 11:49 pm

    Thank you for sharing with us
    Rick.

  7. Dionne Kardos on Oct 5, 2016 at 7:10 am

    I learned and I reflected. Thank you. Always look forward to your articles. Do you know what a great editorial writer you are?

    • Rick Altman on Oct 5, 2016 at 7:16 am

      I appreciate the sentiment, Dionne. Here’s hoping that I never find my aptitude as a writer; then the jig would be up! 🙂

  8. elizabeth macey on Oct 5, 2016 at 8:48 am

    Bravo, Rick!

  9. Eli Ansbacher on Oct 11, 2016 at 8:49 am

    I want to congratulate you on this article, not only because of its valuable content but also for showing that you are proud to be Jewish. Its easy for me to say that, living in Israel, but unfortunately it is becoming more difficult in Europe and even some areas of the USA. So I appreciate it even more!

  10. Woody Parks on Oct 14, 2016 at 1:01 pm

    I work for the Federal courts and a big part of my job is in training in sensitive areas such as preventing discrimination and harassment. I especially note the part where you state, “Little is more important than conveying to my audience members that I am completely devoted to them, that for the next 60 minutes, nothing else in the world matters to me but them.”

    Last week I was speaking about preventing workplace harassment in Chicago, and I shared a story of how my wife had suffered job discrimination due to her Chinese origin, and how we are all victims when employment decisions are not handled professionally. I think that made my point, and held their attention, far better than a legal recitation with a PowerPoint background.

    So thank you for fighting the good fight! I still have a lot to learn.

  11. Paul Riehemann on Oct 20, 2016 at 12:48 pm

    Excellent, thank you Rick. Thoughtful and valuable. For me it’s partly the easy path vs. the road less travelled ‘thing.’ Almost without fail, when I shun the easy path – including what I eat, exercise (or not), initiating a needed conversation, doing the right thing environmentally – I and often others are better off. Reading your ‘road less traveled’ has raised the likelihood that I will do the same in my life. You already have by motivating me to share/comment. 🙂

    Look forward to seeing you and all this week!

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