“Who by Fire, Who by Water:” What the High Holidays Can Teach Us About Beginning Graduate School

For many people, September is a time of endings. The weather cools, the days shorten, leaves turn brilliant colors, then fade and die. For students, teachers, and anyone else involved in the world of education, September is simultaneously a time of beginnings. With the start of a new school year, the opportunities for new friends, lessons, and experiences abound.

As a student and a Jew, I feel this sense of beginning each September doubly. The Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashanah, falls every year in early autumn. Rosh Hashanah marks not only the start of a new year, but also a ten-day period of intensive introspection and repentance that culminates in Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. In those ten days, oftentimes called the “Days of Awe,” each person has the opportunity to right any wrongs they may have committed in the past year, as well as set a new, improved course for themselves for the coming year. Some of the customs for the Days of Awe include reconciling with people one may have hurt; giving tzedakah, or charity, to a worthy cause; and creating resolutions for how one can be a better person the following year. By committing (or failing to commit) acts such as these, we can tip the balance of God’s judgment, for it is on Yom Kippur that our fates are decided for the following year. True repentance leads to life; failure to repent, death.

The Unetanneh Tokef of the High Holiday liturgy expresses this idea powerfully:

On Rosh Hashanah it will be inscribed and on Yom Kippur it will be sealed: how many will pass from the earth and how many will be created; who will live and who will die; who will die at his predestined time and who before his time; who by water and who by fire, who by sword, who by beast, who by famine, who by thirst, who by storm, who by plague, who by strangulation, and who by stoning. Who will rest and who will wander, who will live in harmony and who will be harried, who will enjoy tranquility and who will suffer, who will be impoverished and who will be enriched, who will be degraded and who will be exalted.[1]

I recently had the opportunity to experience such a pure sense of beginning at Harvard Divinity School’s orientation (though the stakes were a bit lower than the ones described above). I served as an Orientation Facilitator for the week-long orientation, which involved leading discussions and serving as a resource and guide for incoming students. I feel incredibly privileged to have worked with these amazing people. Some had come from halfway around the world to study at Harvard. Others had traveled less of a physical distance, but still experienced a long struggle with their own identity until they had come to a place they felt comfortable. All were incredibly kind, smart, and thoughtful, and I cannot wait to work and learn with them in the coming year.

It was during this week that, similar to the Days of Awe, we had the opportunity to chart the course for the year ahead. In our conversations, we strove to create a tone that would encourage tranquility, rather than suffering. We tried to make choices that would cultivate intellectual and spiritual enrichment, rather than impoverishment. Though we knew that we might face fire, beasts, and storms, we prayed for rest and harmony. We broke with our former lives and began anew, hoping to study what we love, build relationships with our colleagues, and find meaning and purpose in our lives. It was not easy, as beginnings rarely are. Nor could we be sure that the course we set for ourselves was the right one and would result in personal fulfillment and peace in the world. We can only hope that next year, in September–the time of the Days of Awe and the beginning of the school year–we can look back on the months past and take pride in the small good we have done, before trying again to do even better.


[1] From the ArtScroll Rosh HaShanah Machzor.

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