High Holy Days

The Jewish High Holidays—or, as my rabbi would insist, High Holy Days—are some of my favorite days of the year. They are not easy days, nor fun days. For those who don’t know, the High Holy Days are a period of ten days, beginning on Rosh Hashanah and ending on Yom Kippur, in which we each examine our lives, seek forgiveness for our sins (in Hebrew, nicely, to sin is merely to ‘miss the mark’), and finally make resolutions for the year ahead.  Tradition says that on Rosh Hashanah, God opens the Book of Life, and on Yom Kippur he closes it. During those ten days, as the prayer Unetaneh Tokef says, he writes the fate of every being for the next year: who shall live and who shall die, who by fire and who by water, etc. etc.

Leonard Cohen does a pretty good cover of the prayer.

I have always liked Yom Kippur for three reasons.

The first is that we fast. Fasting is not easy, but it is nice to experience lack of food every once and a while. As clichéd as it is, it makes you appreciate it more when you have it, and you empathize a little with those who don’t. It also just makes you notice food more—how it surrounds you, how it structures your life, the little signals your body gives as to when you want it. It’s also refreshing to be able to tell your body no, to say that today, at least, I am going to endure a little bit and not be a slave to you the way I am every other day of the year.

The second reason I like Yom Kippur is that it provides a communal setting for individual introspection. As a community, we ask forgiveness for an incredible list of sins, and while I haven’t done nearly all of them in the past year, there are always some that I have done that I wouldn’t have thought of without the list. This year, two stuck out to me in particular, especially because they followed on another:

“In the last year I have missed the mark more than I want to admit…

By revealing my heart before those who neither wanted nor needed to see it;

By hiding love, out of fear of rejection, instead of giving love freely.”

And this has been my struggle over the past year and past lifetime. How do you balance being calm, stoic, and there for others with the need to express your own feelings? How do you let people know what you think and feel without overwhelming them with your life when their life is just as important and meaningful to them as yours is to you? On Yom Kippur, I am able to engage with these struggles not as an individual who has come into this world knowing nothing but as a member of a community, the human community, in which this struggle is universal enough to make it into the liturgy. 

It's also vital to remember that none of us are perfect. We have all fallen short of the mark, in more ways than we can imagine and in more ways than we can admite. Every day should be a day taken in awe and reverence of the fact that--even though we are imperfect beings, so imperfect, flawed and weak, who hurt ourselves and others so much even when we try not to--we are alive and as long as we are alive we can get better. And it's not just each one of us.

The final thing about Yom Kippur is that it’s about asking forgiveness, but it’s also about atoning. In the Avinu Malkeinu prayer, we ask God for forgiveness, but Yom Kippur is not the day of forgiveness. It is the day of atonement, and you can only atone through action. You have to find the people you’ve wronged and do right by them. This is a lot harder than fasting, and it’s an ongoing project. It takes self honesty and the ability to make oneself vulnerable to others, to ask them to forgive you not out of the charity in their heart because you have tried to make things better.


© Henry Gruber 2013