This article is excerpted from The Guide to Jewish Practice, Volume 2, in a chapter written by Rabbi Yael Ridberg. The full Guide may be ordered from the Reconstructionist Press.
Approaching the serious spiritual challenges of the High Holy Day season can be a daunting task. The Hebrew name given to the holidays of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur is Yamim Nora’im, the Days of Awe1. The celebration and commemoration of these days invokes a mixture of anticipation and anxiety, self-evaluation and enjoyment. Contemporary Jews experience all of these emotions and more because these days are devoted to the most fundamental questions about what it means to be human, about the meaning of life, and about the tension between intentions and actions. These days also provide meaningful opportunities to gather with family and friends and to celebrate in community.
Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur are for many the most solemn and significant days on the Jewish calendar, the days when many more Jews gather for prayer than at any other time of the year. However, many of us are unprepared when we come to synagogue on these days.2 3
Uncertain about what to expect and what is expected of us, we are unprepared to confront the personal, spiritual and religious challenges of these days. We are unprepared because these days deal with the difficult, fundamental questions of human nature. We are confronted in the liturgy with the ideas of sin and repentance, justice and mercy, life and death, as well as with our relationships with other people, our understanding of God and, most profoundly, our sense of self. Facing oneself and the need to change one’s life can feel like an overwhelming challenge. As with most intense and important experiences in our lives, we need to prepare for these holiest days in order to understand them and find meaning in their observance. Before one prayer is said, one sermon heard, one apple dipped in honey or one greeting of “Shana tova” (“a good new year”) expressed, there is much work to be done. 4
At the heart of our preparations for the Days of Awe is the concept of change and transformation.5 Jewish tradition understands that human beings are not perfect.6 7 We make mistakes that affect others as well as ourselves, but these errors of judgment, omission and commission need not remain with us forever. On Rosh Hashana, we celebrate life and the possibility of new beginnings.8
The Days of Awe are a communal reenactment of ancient rites, and at the same time they serve as an individual confrontation with our current reality. What are we called to do at this time of year?9 Are these days just a burdensome obligation? How can they be as meaningful as possible? An essential message of the Yamim Nora’im is about the miracle of having lived another year, and the renewal of our awareness that life is a gift. The Yamim Nora’im are an opportunity for solemn rejoicing, for awareness of the ability to seek and grant forgiveness and, above all, for recognizing the human capacity for change.
T’shuva, repentance or returning to one’s true self, is the core concept of the Yamim Nora’im. But the related categories of sin, atonement, forgiveness and pardon are also central, and each has its own nuances.
- 1. Awe is sometimes unhelpfully understood as a synonym for fear. Awe is evoked by an experiential awareness of the vastness of the galaxies in the cosmos, for example, or by the majesty of the flight of an eagle. Awe is connected to a sense of wonder, and a corresponding sense of my individual minuteness in the greater scheme of things. I go through my days as if my concerns are central and of the greatest importance, but then, in a state of awe, I realize what is really important. —JJS
- 2. The Yamim Nora’im can be especially challenging for people who come to synagogue rarely if ever during the rest of the year. The themes of the High Holy Days are intense, but the key metaphors of the liturgy are extremely problematic for anyone who has difficulty with traditional God concepts. From Rosh Hashanah through Yom Kippur, the image of God as king is central. It can be very helpful to remember that this is a metaphor. God is not a king or a ruler or even a supreme being. The function of a metaphor is to describe something that cannot actually be described directly; a good metaphor opens up our thinking in new ways. The question to ask ourselves, as we encounter potentially difficult images of God in the liturgy, is not “Do I believe this?” but rather, “Where is this image trying to take me?” The metaphor of God-as-king can help to give me a sense of my relative smallness in the cosmos and the truth of the ephemeral nature of my own life. It can also give me the sense that I am obligated to something far greater than myself. Whether I name that power “God” or “reality” or “the source of life,” I am invited to contemplate my place in the universe and the ways in which I am called into service to something beyond myself. —TS
- 3. Part of the challenge of the High Holy Day season is that Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur make the most sense in the context of ongoing observance. Then the cumulative themes offer a counterpoint. When they are the only elements of Jewish observance, it can feel like jumping into very deep, very cold water—shocking and uninviting. Prayer leaders and participants together can find ways to make the experience meaningful and welcoming. —DW
- 4. Entering into the longest and most emotionally demanding services of the year without preparation is like deciding to run a long distance race without any training. We can appreciate the depths and distances of the Days of Awe so much more fully when we are sufficiently spiritually prepared. The regular weekday and Shabbat prayers, the daily awareness of careful and kind speech, regular Torah study—all help to prepare us to run the full distance that the Yamim Nora’im are designed to take us. Through regular, thoughtful practice, we may become more primed for working with the difficult fundamental questions of this season. —VM
- 5. The most profound human characteristic is the capacity to change consciously, but it is not easy to tap into that capacity. The changes we make pay our debt to the future. —SPW
- 6. While human beings are not perfect, the traditional notions that each person has a pure soul and is made in the divine image are affirmations that change is possible and that there is no limit to the potential growth of our capacity for goodness and love. —JAS
- 7. Acknowledging and responding to human imperfection is at the heart of most religious and philosophical traditions. The Jewish approach to t’shuva—understanding that we make mistakes and that we can atone for them—can be deeply redemptive. —DW
- 8. Rebbe Nachman of Bratslav taught: “If you believe that you are able to ruin things, then believe that you are able to fix them.” (The Chambers of the Palace: Teachings of Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav, ed. Y. David Shulman) We affirm the freedom and responsibility we have to conduct our lives with decency and morality. On Yom Kippur, we focus on the mistakes we make when we fail to exercise our freedom with responsibility. We seek atonement and forgiveness for our mistakes, and we experience the fragility of life. We realize that we want to make a meaningful difference by the way we live our lives while we still can. —TS
- 9. What feelings arise as we mark the passage of another year? There any many possibilities: I’m a year older, and I’m sad. I really haven’t succeeded in doing the t’shuva I had planned on doing a year ago, and I’m discouraged. Or, life is so precious, and my longevity and health are not to be taken for granted, and I’m so grateful for all of my blessings. On Rosh Hashana we get to choose: who will be sad, who will be discouraged, and who will be grateful. —JJS