There is nothing like the approach of the High Holy Days to bring on what is supposed to be the epitome of the Jewish experience: guilt.
I certainly am not going to say that there is no place in Judaism for introspection and improvement of the way we live our lives. No religion or spiritual practice worth its name would exclude these necessities for growing into a compassionate, caring, and just person.
There is, however, a difference between guilt and introspection and self-improvement.
Guilt is a totally negative emotion. The person who experiences it feels worthless and expects punishment for his or her wrongdoings. The source of the expected punishment may be God, fate, natural disaster, or disease. Fear is the feeling that accompanies this sense of oncoming and deserved catastrophe.
For many if not most Jews, these are the emotions the High Holy Days stir up. And there is a history to this, but mostly an Ashkenazi one. Who cannot be shaken by the words of one of the main liturgical poems of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, called Unetaneh Tokef? In it the poet speaks of God writing each Jew’s fate for the year in His book at this season: “Who will live and who will die? Who by fire and who by water?” The list of potential calamities ends, thankfully, with some relief. The poet promises that repentance, prayer, and tzedakah will avert God’s decree.
Sephardim do not recite this “scare prayer” as part of their High Holy Day liturgy, and there is a distinctly different feeling about guilt and the “Days of Awe” among them.
For Sephardic Jews — whether their origins are in the West (Spain and Portugal) or in the East (North Africa or the Middle East) — the High Holy Days, or at least preparation for them, starts a month before Rosh Hashanah with selichot, prayers requesting forgiveness. These prayers take place either in the middle of the night or very early in the morning. You would expect a month’s worth of crying and cringing, but attendance at Sephardic selichot, where for the most part the entire congregation joins in singing, is rather upbeat. The general feeling is that although we may not have been our best selves and should do better, nevertheless we have a loving Parent, who is ready to accept our imperfections if we just try harder to be the Image of God we were created to be.
The music of the Sephardic selichot is joyous, and the liturgy encourages rather than blames. And the service ends with participants wishing each other “May you merit many and good years.”
A similar feeling pervades Sephardic Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. If you decide to engage in breast-beating in a Spanish-Portuguese synagogue during one of the Yom Kippur “confessions,” you’ll find yourself alone in that activity. I once asked why this behavior, which is so common in the Ashkenazic synagogue, is absent in the Spanish-Portuguese liturgical choreography. The answered I received was, “We are not required to debase ourselves before our Father who loves us. We should be conscious of our failings, but not overwhelmed by them. The One Who created us will help us be who we should be if we ask for His help. But we don’t have to belittle ourselves in order to receive that help.” This is not a story about guilt. It is a story about how the Days of Awe can be days of joy.
Chabad Hasidim say that this pre-High Holy Day period is when the world’s Sovereign is not in His palace, but rather out in the field. This is the season when we enjoy the immediate presence of God. Because He is in the field, we are free to ask anything of Him. How would any of us feel if we could have a private audience with a ruler and be granted whatever we might ask? Any visiting diplomat would jump for joy.
In many ways, Chabad is teaching the same lesson as the Sephardim: This is not a moment to wallow in the sense of worthlessness that comes with guilt, but to see ourselves as children of our Sovereign and Parent, who is ready to grant us the good life for which we wish in return for us becoming more compassionate, just as He is compassionate, and more merciful, just as He is merciful.
Beyond Ashkenazim and Sephardim there is a Jewish sect called the Karaites, who follow only the Written Torah. Since they deny rabbinic interpretation, and since the Torah does not say specifically that we must blow the shofar on Rosh Hashanah, they don’t. Still they call the first day of Tishri, as we do, “Yom Teru’ah.” We translate this phrase as “the Day of Blowing the Shofar.” They, however, refer to the day as “the Day of Friendship” with God.
This is no appeal on my part for ending the practice of shofar blowing, but it would be healthier for all of us to view Rosh Hashanah as a day when two friends who may have lost close touch with each other during the year renew their friendship once more. Then the sound of the shofar, which also blew at Sinai, would remind us of the wedding of God and Israel. It would remind us of the symbolic Shofar of Redemption, when the world will know the joy of freedom and plenty for us and all the nations. And mostly it would remind us of the trumpets blown in ancient times at moments of joy: “On the day of your joy and your festivals and new moons, sound the trumpet….”(Numbers 10:10.)
The Mishnah tells us that “No holidays exceeded (in joy) the 15th of Av and Yom Kippur” (Mishnah, Ta’anit 4:8). The story of the 15th of Av is too long to tell here, but the idea that Yom Kippur was a day of joy is rather mysterious to a contemporary Jew, who experiences it as a day of guilt. Where is the joy in repeating “For the sin we have committed,” using every letter of the Hebrew alphabet?
I believe that we know that when we begin on a new path, when we try to set ourselves right, the feeling of trying to start a new and better way of life fills us with the kind of happiness, excitement, and yes, trepidation that goes along with beginning any journey. Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are the beginning of that journey, and to move forward into it, we must look back to avoid the pitfalls that have made our previous travels less valuable and enjoyable. If we do that well, and face our new journey’s ups and downs with strength, faith, and optimism, things may not go perfectly from an onlooker’s point of view, but with our sense of self-worth intact, our life journeys always are journeys toward growth and better self-understanding.
As Yom Kippur’s light fades, the Sephardic community sings this at Ne’ilah, the last service of the holy day:
“May parents and children merit years aplenty, filled with happiness and joy at this moment of Ne’ilah; Michael, guardian angel of Israel, Elijah, and Gabriel, announce the Redemption at this moment of Ne’ilah.
The Yamim Noraim should fill us with awe: for life, for the great possibilities that life can offer, and for the beauty and wonder of our world that we can see if we keep our eyes open. It is the season of our joy, in which we reclaim our essential worth and march confidently toward a better future. Guilt will not bring us to this. Only joy can.
Let us heed the words of Ezra and Nehemiah, when they spoke to the returnees to Israel on Rosh Hashanah, “Go! Eat rich food and drink sweet drink and send portions of food to those who have none prepared, for today is holy unto our Sovereign. And do not be sad, for taking joy in Adonai is the source of your strength” (Nehemiah 8:10).
May you be joyful in this season of our gladness, and go from strength to strength!