The High Holy Days are a month away. We all know that Rosh Hashanah marks the beginning of the Jewish New Year. Shortly thereafter, Yom Kippur represents the holiest day of the calendar, marked by fasting, prayer, and seeking forgiveness for our transgressions.
During a High Holy Day seminar I recently attended sponsored by the Northern California Board of Rabbis, our presenting scholar, Rabbi David Wolpe, asked Why does Rosh Hashanah precede Yom Kippur? Wouldn’t it make more sense to begin the New Year with Yom Kippur, so that we could begin the New Year with forgiven for our sins? He answered his own question by stating that spiritual repentance is a process. One cannot just arrive at the first day of the New Year and be ready to ask forgiveness. Instead, we begin on Rosh Hashanah with gratitude: for the blessings we receive and for the renewal of life. By first acknowledging the amazing bounty that fills our lives can we then embark on the arduous practice of seeking forgiveness. In Judaism, repentance (teshuvah) requires time to unfold.
I was amazed to discover recently that there is another ancient religion that similarly has a special season set aside for seeking forgiveness and spiritual renewal. The Jain religion is one of the oldest faiths in the world. It was founded in India more than two thousand years ago and claims over 6 million adherents.
Last Saturday was the first day of what we might describe as the High Holy Days for Jains. Their first holiday is Paryushan, a festival that focuses on penance and forgiveness. During the 8 days of Paryushan, Jains fast, study scriptures, and make vows. This is followed by the10 day festival of Das Lakshan, in which the ten supreme Dharmas (virtues) are celebrated: including Modesty, Contentment, Truth, Self-Restraint, and Non-attachment to material possessions.
Here’s where the parallel to Judaism is most clear: after the observance of the 8 days of Paryushan and the 10 days of Das Lakshan, “Jains ask forgiveness from each other, their friends, co-workers, and most importantly, their enemies.” Through this 18 day preparatory period, hearts become ‘soft’ and minds become ‘strong’ to ask for forgiveness. As one Jain stated, “we have courage to say: ‘Please forgive me if I have hurt you or have done wrong toward you intentionally or unintentionally. With elders: touch their feet and ask for forgiveness. With youngsters: embrace them and ask for forgiveness. With friends: embrace them and ask for forgiveness. With enemies: meet them or call them and ask for forgiveness. With all living beings and our planet: mentally ask for forgiveness as you may have hurt them in the process of living a Jain Way of Life.”
I am deeply impressed by the process by which a follower of the Jain Way of Life seeks to rebalance one’s soul through meditation and study and by actively seeking forgiveness from others. In the best sense, the Jains set a very high bar for achieving spiritual enlightenment. As one of their sages stated, “Conquer anger by forgiveness, pride by humility, deceit by straight-forwardness, and greed by contentment.”
It may seem odd to cite a different religion as a means of creating greater awareness about the Jewish path of repentance and renewal. However, as Ben Zoma, one of our sages stated long ago, “Who are wise? Those who learn from all people.”