Aug. 22, 2010
If we're not careful, the High Holy Days can come and go without our getting the most out of this important season. We can go through the process of attending services, reciting the familiar liturgy and, before we know it, we will be sitting down to our break-the-fast dinners.
But the High Holy Days can be much more. Just as we set goals for ourselves throughout the rest of the year -- I will exercise more this fall, I will stay in closer contact with friends -- we all should set goals for what we hope to accomplish during the High Holy Days season. After all, this is our time to reflect, to repent, to think about our successes and our failures, and to contemplate our lives.
Spiritual leaders have taught that the "tenor of life is deeply affected by these moments of serious self-examination," writes Rabbi David Wolpe. "To pass through this world without knowing one's own soul is forever to carry a message unread. How can we know what we might accomplish without knowing the powers and temptation inside our own hearts?"
Our ancestors realized that the kind of experience Jews were expected to have during the High Holy Days season required at least 10 days of effort and reflection, which is why the days from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur are called the Days of Awe, the Yamim Noraim.
One Jewish scholar recommends taking a big red pen and marking an 'X' through each of the 10 days including Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur on the family calendar. In this way we can call attention to these important days and remind ourselves and our families that these days are for serious thought.
Along with marking these days on the calendar, how about making a list of the things you would like to accomplish this season? Perhaps you would like to be more patient, or attend services more often, feel our communal prayers more deeply, or do more Jewish learning. Identifying your religious goals will bring you that much closer to realizing them.
I don't offer this suggestion without taking it to heart myself. Each year at this season, I not only spend time preparing to lead worship services and to deliver sermons, I also spend time on my own spiritual preparation. So I also try to make lists -- to think of ways I can improve as a person, a rabbi, a father and a husband. I can't ask you to delve deep if I'm not willing to do the same.
As Rabbi Jonah of Gerona wrote in the 13th Century, "There are many levels of repentance through which one draws near to the Holy Blessed One. And although there is forgiveness in relation to each kind of repentance, the soul does not become completely purified . . . unless one purifies one's heart and properly conditions one's spirit." We often talk about conditioning our bodies but rarely of conditioning our souls. But that is exactly what we do on the High Holy Days.
We examine our souls, we repent, we reflect, we ask God's forgiveness, and that is just the beginning. From there, we actually have to act. If we beg God for forgiveness for our sins now, we cannot turn around and commit the same sins a week later.
As Moses Maimonides wrote: "Who has achieved complete teshuvah (repentance)? A person who confronts the same situation in which he (or she) sinned and abstains, although that person has the potential to commit the sin again."
We not only define ourselves by the sins we do not commit, but also, of course, by the mitzvot we do commit. The ancient rabbis taught that the mitzvot exist to "refine human beings" (Bereshit Rabbah, 44:1). Rabbi Wolpe explains it this way: "That is, this vast, intricate tradition of commandments exists that we might begin to understand ourselves better, and refine our own souls."
Let this season -- the Days of Awe, be a time of transcendence for all of us. Let this season turn us away from temptation and toward our purer selves. Let this season inspire us to be better people.
Shana tova u'metuka! May God bless us with a sweet and good New Year!