So many people think that religions differ greatly, but I’m always amazed at how similar they can be. This week sees the start of two very different, yet very similar holy seasons.
Pchum Ben is one of the holiest times of the Cambodian calendar. It is a 15 day festival where Cambodian Buddhists pay their respects to their ancestors, up to seven generations before them. It begins with the time the ancestors’ souls are released for a 15 day journey between hell and heaven. Their progress depends both on their own karma and on the offerings made during this season by their descendants. Food plays an important part, and the monks are given these food offerings to help with the fate of family spirits.
In Judaism, this week also sees the beginning of the holiest season of the year, the 10 days between Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, and Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. This is when the Book of Life is opened and Jews prayer for a sweet year to come, asking for forgiveness of any wrongs done during the previous year – but asking not just from God, but from their friends, families and acquaintances. The Shofar, or ram’s horn, is blown to announce the beginning and end of the festival season, and like all Jewish holidays, traditional foods play an important part of the festivities.
Both holidays are focussed around an extended time of prayer, feasting, offerings and rituals. Each holiday provides a time when we look at our lives within a greater context of family and community. Both holidays are filled with ritualized music and food.
Both of these festivals hold meaning in my own life. But this year, more than ever, I find myself focussing on what connects them and, therefore, what connects all of us, across space, across time, and across belief systems. I wish us all and all our ancestors sweetness and peace in the coming year.