The central message of High Holy Days is renewal, beginning again. To really begin again, we need to ask questions, sometimes hard ones, to examine our lives from the light of eternity and to ask about what really counts. The thing is, if we initiate this process on Erev Rosh Hashahah, the night before Rosh Hashanah, we most likely won’t be prepared. It’s like getting into a pool of cold water. If we’re prepared, if we get in one toe at a time, the water, however painful, can leave us tingling, refreshed, feeling newly born into the world. But if we jump in all at once, not knowing what to expect, the shock will send a chill down to our lungs, leaving us unable to breathe. We’ll most likely scramble out before getting a chance to consider what the water can do for us.
Turning inward begins in the summer. The world, filled with light, has some darkness in it. Is it not interesting that as we get to beyond the height of the summer, the darkness comes sooner.
It is now the month of Elul—the month leading to Rosh Hashana. Isaac Bashevis Singer once wrote that the month of Elul is so holy that the fish tremble in the streams.
In Hebrew, the High Holy Days are referred to as the “yamim noraim,” or“the days of awe.” Think of these days as aspiring to fill you with awe, the way birth, the miracle of creation, a beautiful sunset, or a breathtaking view from a mountain can affect you. This awe is tinged with gratitude, with a longing for understanding what God really wants, with a desire for forgiveness. Think of High Holy Days as a time to pause in the stream that is your life and reflect, a time to pause and tremble with awe.
Rosh Hashanah, the “beginning of change,” celebrates the Jewish new year, and the birthday of the world, but is marked by an intensive period of looking inward as individuals. Rosh Hashanah invites us each to examine the world in a different light. Sure, if we look at the world in dark times, we know the world is filled with darkness, with pain, with emptiness, with cynicism and doubt. Rosh Hashanah invites us each to examine the darkness and see it for what it is, but also to remember that according to our wonderful tradition, before the world was created, there was nothing but darkness. So, if you look at it from that perspective, the light entering the universe through compassion, creativity, empathy, goodness, healing and renewal...is winning. On that basis, we are invited to let go of cynicism that things will never change and dream again.
Ten days after Rosh Hashanah comes Yom Kippur, the day of atonement, a day of making amends. Yom Kippur is a day of offering up confession, of fasting, of praying to God for forgiveness. Like mourners, we traditionally don’t wear leather. Like a dead body, we are traditionally dressed in white. Yom Kippur is a day of facing our own mortality.
Most of all, Yom Kippur is a day of forgiveness and cleansing. In the beautiful glimmer of a new day, celebrated with the replenishment of a break-the-fast meal, there is a wonderful sense of renewal. We have felt the “high” of emerging from deep personal and collective scrutiny, and the celebration of truly beginning again, followed four days later by the joy of Sukkot.
At every service, Jews say the Kaddish, the mourners’ prayer, in memory of their loved ones. During High Holy Days, the loss is brought closer. On Yom Kippur evening, yahrzeit (memorial) candles are lit, and on Yom Kippur day, yizkor (a memorial service) is said. For many secular Jews coming from an experience that is laden with death denial, Kaddish can feel foreign, a little disorienting. Secular America has a hard, hard time addressing mourning as an ongoing process. Americans are more inclined to say a death was a blessing than they are to share the burden of ongoing grief. This creates a distorted effect for Jews who are not used to engaging the memory of the loss of a loved one. It makes Judaism seem like an address of death, not a celebration of life. But take a moment to consider what Kaddish can offer. For some, the desire to say Kaddish is tied to personal loss, and therein the power. For others, after so many millennia of collective losses, after the Holocaust, there is a desire to reflect on more than personal losses. The whole goal of Kaddish is to evoke a yearning in the mourner that all of life be a growing container for the holy and that the experience ofGod be expanded on this Earth. How? Through acts of lovingkindness and through righteous action. Even at a time of loss, when death disrupts one’s sense of wholeness? Yes. The underlying premise is that if you are in mourning, you are more deeply aware that time is limited and that life has value. Awareness of limited time can put us in greater touch with life’s sanctity.
This year, we are emphasizing the need for a meal. A sacred meal. It represents a journey, an invitation to look at the world, our world, anew and celebrate.