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Surviving an assassination attempt gave me a new appreciation for the High Holidays

Last year, I celebrated Rosh Hashanah services on Mount Lemmon, a small mountain that overlooks my home in Tucson, Ariz. We started doing this during the pandemic for safety reasons, but I hope we’ll continue to do it in years to come.

On Mount Lemmon, I look out over the desert landscape. I listen to the familiar voice of my rabbi with the noise of the mountain around me — birds and a buzzing mosquito here and there. We are celebrating the birth of the world in the world, starting the Days of Awe in awe of our surroundings. It is a profound gift.

I have always loved this time of year, but I’ve experienced Rosh Hashanah differently since I was shot ten years ago. Before January 8th, 2011, the New Year was a celebration, but a given — not a gift. It came around every fall, like clockwork.

After surviving an assassination attempt, learning to walk and talk again, and rebuilding a new life for myself, every new year feels like a small miracle, a victory over despair and defeat. I do not take a new year for granted now, and I never will again.

Sarah Debbie Gutfreund once wrote, “think of Yom Kippur as a lookout on the top of a mountain that you have been climbing all year. See your days and their moments spread out before you. Be willing to look now at this big picture of your life. Your ultimate goals. Your beliefs.”

Celebrating Rosh Hashanah on top of a mountain really brings home the idea of pausing to reflect on the panorama spread out before you — not just the moments that make up your year, but also the years that make up your life.

I am by nature a reflective person. I love the holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur because they offer an opportunity to reflect, repair that which needs repair and renew myself for the year to come.

Since I began my career as an advocate for safer gun laws, I’ve valued these quiet, introspective days even more. Our work is hard; I get frustrated; the stories of unnecessary loss and suffering weigh heavily on me. During this season, I reground myself to keep pushing, to carry the stories of others with me and to honor them through action.

Even though Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur offer opportunities for reflection, they are not passive. They are a time of intention, commitment and accountability. A time to declare beliefs proudly. That’s why I love the sound of the shofar ringing out, signifying the coming together of the community, the declaring of one’s attention to God.

As a french horn player — both before I was shot and now, playing with only one hand — I appreciate that the shofar is both accessible and takes commitment. As Professor Steven Katz of Boston University has said, “Anyone can blow the shofar; it doesn’t have to be the rabbi — it’s anyone who has the strength. It’s not easy; it takes a lot of wind.”

Both the shofar and the french horn are instruments powered by breath: a sign of life and a tool that we can return to when we feel stressed and overwhelmed. Both ground me in the present and encourage me to use the time I have to make the difference I can.

I’ve been thinking about the agency and power we each possess as I’ve been reading The 100 Mile Diet, a book by Alisa Smith and JB MacKinnon about the value of shifting your diet to food grown and produced within a 100 mile radius of your home. I’m pledging to eat more food grown locally this year.

This feels like a way to connect with this Arizonan environment I love so much, from the fruit and nuts grown in Wilcox to beef grown by the cattle ranchers I used to represent in Congress. It’s also a way to live out my values of reducing my energy consumption and committing to sustainability. I hope it will also feel like a deepening of the sense of community I value so much to eat food grown and tended by people looking at my same mountains, my same desert, my same sky.

It isn’t easy to change how you eat. But my experience of this holiday season is that things that are not easy often bring great reward. In our communities and in our country, we are faced with choices and actions that are not easy. Will we take steps to find common ground to keep us safer from gun violence? Can we put aside our differences and unify around vaccines, to keep us all healthier and safer?

The answer lies in each individual. Upon reflection, do we value those around us? Have we done what we can for them?

My prayer for us all echoes the Jewish morning prayer Modeh Ani, in which we thank God for “restoring our soul” — for giving us breath for another day.

I pray we see each day as an opportunity to do more for one another, together.

Gabrielle Giffords was a Democratic representative from Arizona from 2007 to 2012. She is the founder of Giffords, a national organization dedicated to saving lives from gun violence.

To contact the author, email [email protected].


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