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.



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