We have just shared a joyous Rosh Hashanah together and I look forward to sharing the cathartic intensity of Yom Kippur with you. As you know, once a year, for ten days, Jews around the world are challenged to transform themselves. While the themes of rebirth, renewal, apologizing and forgiving are part of Judaism all year long, the first ten days of the Jewish year, from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur, are especially sacred.
Synagogues are more full of adults and children on these days than on any others of the year. We celebrate Rosh Hashanah, the New Year, as a universal holiday – it’s not just about the Jews, but about the creation of the whole world and all humanity. It’s a family reunion for our people and a time to bring the best of the past into the new year, while leaving our psychological baggage and ethical shortcomings behind. As we celebrate the creation of the world, we hope for a re-creation of ourselves. Our tradition believes in second chances – over and over again annually – but we have to work for it. We have to want to change.
Prayers and ceremonies at this time of year are beautiful and evocative – apples dipped in honey for a sweet year, round challahs representing both the cycle of the year and the unity of the world, but they are not substitutes for directly asking others for forgiveness. Even harder, sometimes, is being the one granting forgiveness to those who apologize to us. Sadly, sometimes self-righteousness is more powerful than true, loving righteousness, so people want to hold on to their pain and anger. The message of the High Holidays is: let go and live more fully.
The piercing sounds of the Shofar, the ram’s horn, stir something profoundly spiritual and psychological within us. Its first sound, Tekia, resonates with a call to attentiveness; then, the piercing Shevarim breaks down our defenses; and, finally, the staccato cries of the Teruah sound like tears that we want and need to shed if we are to truly change.
Why do we celebrate Rosh Hashanah, a new year, a new beginning and new hope first? So that we have the strength, over the next “ten days of repentance,” to do the difficult work of self-scrutiny, personal growth and behavioral change that culminates on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. On that day – the holiest of the year – we spend a full day together, from Kol Nidre at sundown to Neilah at the next day’s sundown, fasting for over 24 hours, worshiping, studying, and honestly confronting ourselves, so that our sincere atonement will lead to a transformative “at-one-ment.”
At University Synagogue, we combine traditional prayers, humanistic reflections, modern poetry, study groups, meditation, drama and powerful music to stir the heart and to celebrate moral renewal and the power of human potential.
Hopefully, we will emerge from these holy days counting our blessings more, kvetching (complaining) less and being less judgmental towards others. The greatest challenge of these days was well expressed by the British philosopher and novelist Iris Murdoch who wrote, “love is the extremely difficult realization that something other than oneself is real.” That is one of the great challenges of the High Holy Days – to love both your neighbor and yourself.
The proof, of course, will present itself in the year ahead. Did we bring more justice and peace to the world? Did we do the work of Tikkun Olam – repairing a broken world – by deeds of kindness, charity and altruism? The reason that these holy days speak to Jews who range in their beliefs from traditionalists to humanists is that they ask us to go beyond prayer (literally, lip service) to tangible action. Regret is not enough; changing one’s behavior is the proof of sincerity. As a great Jewish teacher, the Kotzker Rebbe, taught “there is nothing so whole as a broken heart.” So, on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, we strive to use our shared universal human brokenness in the service of greater empathy for others and self-awareness in the year ahead, as we wish each other and the world, “Shana Tova” – a good, happy, healthy and peaceful New Year.