2018-09-12 / Editorial

High Holidays provide a rewarding pathway to renewal

Self-improvement is hard, requiring time set aside for soul searching as well as a desire for change to occur. The complexity of issues in our lives and facing the planet may seem overwhelming at times. Judaism recognizes this, which is why the High Holidays involve far more than attending services on the days carved out for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

By the time the Jewish New Year has rolled around, the process is well underway. It begins during the days of the month of Elul with the blowing of the shofar each morning. This symbolizes the call to listeners to start the difficult work of repentance. The process intensifies the week before Rosh Hashanah with the recitation of selichot, prayers involving the confession of sins and the requesting of God’s forgiveness and help.

The first day of Tishrei is Rosh Hashanah, which kicks off the 10 Days of Awe. During this time period, Jews have the opportunity to tip the scales of divine judgment in our favor through repentance, prayer, and tzedakah (performing righteous deeds and giving money to charitable causes). Among the beautiful traditions observed during the New Year festival, tashlich, the symbolic casting off of sins, is particularly poignant. Taking a break from intense study, we immerse ourselves in nature, gathering along the banks of a river, stream or perhaps the Atlantic Ocean to cast away our bread (our sins) into the water. As the dampened “sins” sink or are eaten by fish and fowl, it’s only natural to ponder the fragility of life.

Yom Kippur, at the end of the 10-day period, serves as the pinnacle of intensity. Throughout the solemn day, we are moving toward the decisive moment when God is imagined to be sealing the books of life and death. By abstaining from everyday activities including eating and sexual relations, Jews are instructed to focus on our spiritual health.

Kol Nidre, recited before sunset, is the dramatic introduction. It features heartrending poems and prayers that delve into the themes of repentance, human frailty, and humility before God, according to MyJewishLearning.com. Combined with nusah, or musical style of the service, one can feel the momentousness of the day.

During Neilah, the last prayer service, we pray before the open ark, with a last opportunity to repent before the book of life is symbolically sealed. The word neilah means locking, referring to the imagery of the gates of repentance. They were opened during the High Holidays and are now shutting down for the year before the traditional break-the-fast.

Following this pattern is a pathway to renewal each year. It’s rigorous work to be sure. However, repairing the world, and cleansing our own souls in the process, are worth the effort.

We wish you and your loved ones a Shanah Tovah. 

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