The Jewish High Holy Days (sometimes referred to as the Days of Awe) begin with Rosh Hashanah (literally the head of the year) and end, after 10 days of reflection, with Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. Though filled with family and food, it is a time of serious reflection. We must thoughtfully examine the year gone by. We think about what worked and what did not work. We plan what we can and will do to act better; to be better. We make amends.
Personal responsibility is key during this 10 day period. Maimonides said “free will is given to every human being. If we wish to incline ourselves towards goodness and righteousness, we are free to do so and if we incline ourselves toward evil, we are also free to do that. From scripture (Genesis 3:22) we learn that the human species, with it knowledge of good and evil, is unique among all earth’s creatures. Of our own accord, by our own faculty of intelligence and understanding, we can distinguish between good and evil, doing as we choose, nothing holds us back from making this choice…the power is in our hands”.
So the decisions and actions of the year just completed were made by choice. Our own choice. Some of those choices were good, and some should not have been made and definitely should not be repeated. If the choices we made harmed our community, either locally or world wide, we must recognize our own part (regardless of how small it may be) and work individually and collectively to bring about positive change. Recognizing where we have failed is one thing, taking the steps to make things better is not always easy.
If the first nine days are for reflections, the last day is for atonement. And asking for forgiveness must be made in person. The thought of facing someone we have wronged causes anxiety and fear. But if we do not right the wrong we commit against others, then we cannot move forward. To make us more aware of the choice of causing someone pain, we fast all day. Fasting, and all of the unpleasant side effects associated with it, is a physical nudge to help us remember that hurting someone else is going to cause us pain as well. Part of causing and then hopefully easing that pain is the requirement to face that person directly and sincerely ask to be forgiven. On this day G-d says…(if I may paraphrase) “you got yourself into this and you need to get yourself out of it”. Text messages ending with an emoticon will simply not do.
The New Union Prayer book used by Congregation Sukkat Shalom tells us the Days of Awe are the time for turning. The leaves are beginning to turn from green to red and yellow. The birds are beginning to turn and are heading South. The animals are beginning to turn and store food for the winter. For leaves, birds and animals turning comes instinctively. But for us turning does not come so easily. It takes an act of will for us to make a turn. It means breaking with old habits. It means admitting that we have been wrong; and this is never easy. It means loosing face; it means starting all over again; and this is always painful. It means saying I am sorry. It means recognizing that we have the ability to change. These things are terribly hard for us to do. But unless we turn, we will be trapped for ever in yesterday’s ways.
During the High Holy Days we ask G-d to help us turn – from callousness to sensitivity, from hostility to love, from pettiness to purpose, from envy to contentment, from carelessness to discipline, from fear to faith. Turn us around. Revive our lives. Restore us of our humanity. Turn us toward each other for in isolation there is no life. And remind us that our ability to make choices is a gift, and it is one we should use wisely.
L’Shana Tova Tikatevu ~ May You be Inscribed in the Book of Life for a Good Year.
• Chara Lee is a member of the Congregation of Sukkat Shalom.