It was such a pleasure to see so many of you over Rosh haShanah! Approaching Yom Kippur next week, I want to wish everyone a g’mar ḥatimah tovah– a good conclusion to your sealing in the Book of Life. For those who asked if my Rosh haShanah sermons would be online- you should be able to see them on our website and download a .pdf there.
As I’m sure you’ll appreciate, there is much to write and prepare for Yom Kippur as well, so please forgive me (’tis the season) for recycling below a piece I wrote for Kol Masorti last year (and which has been featured on Facebook this year):
Some Frequently Asked Questions on … The High Holy Days!
What do we call these things anyway?
“Days of Awe,” “High Hol(i/y)(_)Days,” “The Ḥagim…” We all know they’re important, but what exactly are the High Holy Days? Like many similar things, our annual season of repentance bears many names because it is so hard to translate its original title. The Hebrew ימים נוראים literally comes out as ‘Days of Awe–’ but the question remains, is it ‘awe’ as in ‘awful’ or ‘awe’ as in ‘awesome?’ In all likelihood, it’s somewhere in-between. The root of the Hebrew is י.ר.א and shares its two strong letters with another weak root: ר.א.ה (to see). The result is that we can imagine that the ‘awe’ which we are meant to live out is the sort that comes about from seeing something amazing. These days should be days of encountering- what we see (God, ourselves, each other) and how it makes us feel (awful or awesome) depend on the year we’ve had.
What parts of the Torah do we read on the High Holy Days?
Considering that the Yamim Nora’im are a rare opportunity to have maximal attendance at synagogue, the rabbis had to choose the Torah readings for these auspicious days very carefully. On the first day of Rosh haShanah, we read the story of Ḥagar, Sarah’s servant and reluctant co-wife to Abraham. In our reading, Ḥagar is cast out of the household along with her infant son, Yishma’el, and they are saved from near-certain death in the desert due to the intervention of an angel. The following day, we read from the following chapter, with the reading for second day Rosh haShanah telling the story of the Akédah, AKA: ‘The Binding of Isaac.’ Both stories reflect somewhat on what it means to give birth to something and encounter all the vulnerabilities of parenthood. Perhaps we can imagine that God, on the universe’s birthday, is in the same frame of mind. On Yom Kippur we embrace the meta and read about, you guessed it, Yom Kippur. Chapter 16 of Leviticus tells the tale of the ancient Yom Kippur ritual involving passing sin off on a goat (the first and original scape-goat) and gently shoving it off a cliff.
That’s great– but if all we’re doing is praying and reading Torah, why am I here all day?
Truthfully, the liturgy for the Yamim Nora’im doesn’t need to be that long (sorry!) The core part of the maḥzor is the same as any holiday service, with the same structure: Shaḥarit, Torah reading, and Musaf. Yet, seizing the season of sentiment and spirituality, we have grossly enlarged the service by the addition of religious poetry known as piyyutim. These devotional poems are inserted into the repetition of the Amidah, along with some biblical verses, making Musaf live up to its name of being the ‘additional’ service.
Why have the ten days in the middle? Can’t we just get this over with a 48-hour pray-a-thon?
Although the Yamim Nora’im are bookended by Rosh haShanah and Yom Kippur, the days between those two are just as important. The rabbis imagined that at the end of the year, God records a net value for each individual (kind of like taxes), writing them in either the ‘Book of Life,’ or the ‘Book of Death.’ This process takes time though, and so we imagine that there are ten days during which the book is open, but the inscription hasn’t yet been made. We believe that through a process of self-reflection, meditation, and penitence, we can positively affect our future inscription. The opportunity is short-lived, with the ‘Gates of Repentance’ closing on Yom Kippur (Ne’ilah means ‘locking’). However, even despite such finality, the rabbis continue to teach that teshuvah can actually be accepted until Sukkot (and some say until Ḥanukkah (and some say until Pesaḥ!)).
How about the Shofar? What’s the deal with the holy horn?
The shofar remains the primary symbol of the Yamim Nora’im for two reasons, one very practical, and one very spiritual. Originally, the shofar was not a religious implement at all, but a military instrument used in the field of battle- to rally troops and to frighten enemies. Over time, the symbolism shifted away from the battlefield, and to the individual person’s journey, but with the same implications: the shofar has the dual purpose of 1) waking us up to get our attention and rouse us to do battle, and 2) scaring away our enemies. In this case, our enemies are demons, whom, according to Jewish tradition, are scared of the shofar’s sound. We blow it both to wake ourselves up to the process of renewal we must undertake, as well as to protect that process from malevolent spirits, attempting to prevent us from realising our mistakes and engaging in teshuvah.
Well, that’s weird– but, what is this ‘Teshuvah’ business anyway?
Teshuvah, the word which our English maḥzorim have as ‘repentance,’ or ‘atonement,’ really has three meanings, none of which are those fancy English words. Teshuvah can mean either 1) return, 2) regret, or 3) response. Literally, a teshuvah is an answer, a response to a question. In this case, that question is the one that we ask of ourselves in reflecting on the past year and on our regrets. In doing that, we achieve the ability to return, to come back to the start of a new year with a renewed religious life, beginning again, and again.
Do I have to say sorry?
Yes, you do– and saying sorry is only the first step. The Yamim Nora’im are an opportunity for us to reflect on any hurt we’ve caused and try and rectify it. You have an obligation to apologise to those whom you’ve hurt, but also to try and go beyond words to make things right. If you’re the party who has been hurt, be advised, you’re not obligated to forgive. The onus of responsibility falls on the offending part to apologise, and in doing so, they free themselves of those things which keep them back from teshuvah. It’s not easy, and it’s rarely simple– but to have the chance to begin again with a ‘clean slate,’ it is very much worth it. Good luck.