Shammai Engelmayer
Shammai Engelmayer

A challenge and a checklist for the High Holy Days

The month of Elul, Judaism’s premier penitential preparation period, begins a week from this Sunday.

For Sephardim, it marks the start of the daily recitation of S’lichot, the penitential prayers leading to the High Holy Days. Ever since the mid-18th century, Ashkenazim, too, have a liturgical change as Elul begins: For 51 days, from Elul 1 through Hoshanah Rabbah during Sukkot, which closes out the repentance period, they add Psalm 27 to their morning and evening prayers.

How and why Psalm 27 became “the Psalm of the Days of Awe” is a matter of speculation. Suggestions range from finding possible references to the High Holy Days and Sukkot in the text (a credible assertion) to kabbalistic interpretations.

I would like to offer yet another explanation for the why of it: Psalm 27 represents the request we make of God at this time — a request we get the answer to on Yom Kippur, when we read Isaiah 57:14-58:14, the haftarah that morning. Between the two readings, we get a firm understanding of how lives should be lived — in the year to come and every day of every year.

Consider these excerpts from Psalm 27:

“One thing I ask of the Lord, only that do I seek: to live in the house of the Lord all the days of my life…. Hear, O Lord, when I cry aloud; have mercy on me, answer me…. Do not hide Your face from me…. Show me Your way, O Lord, and lead me on a level path….” (See Psalm 27:4-11.)

And here is God’s answer, from Isaiah 58:

“Declare to My people their transgression, to the House of Jacob their sin,” God demands of Isaiah. “To be sure, they seek Me daily, eager to learn My ways.

right, that has not abandoned the laws of its God, they ask Me for the right way; they are eager for the nearness of God:

“‘Why, when we fasted, did You not see?’ [they ask.] ‘When we starved our bodies, did You pay no heed?’ [Tell them, it is because] on your fast day you see to your business, and oppress all your laborers! Because you fast in strife and contention, and you strike with a wicked fist…!

“Is such the fast I desire, a day for men to starve their bodies? Is it bowing the head like a bulrush and lying in sackcloth and ashes? Do you call that a fast, a day when the Lord is favorable [to your pleas]?

“No,” says God through Isaiah. Rather “this is the fast I desire: To unlock fetters of wickedness, and untie the cords of the yoke so the oppressed may go free…; to share your bread with the hungry, and to take the wretched poor into your home; when you see the naked, to clothe him, and not to ignore your own kin….

“Then, when you call, the Lord will answer; when you cry, He will say: ‘Here I am.’ If you banish the yoke from your midst, the menacing hand, and evil speech, and you offer your compassion to the hungry and satisfy the famished creature, then…you can seek the favor of the Lord….”(See Isaiah 58.)

This is not God asking us to say “I’m sorry. I won’t do it again.” It is not God asking us to engage in empty ritual. This is God’s challenge to us to focus on what is wrong with our world and to work to fix it.

We have turned entertainers and sports figures, and even some politicians, into role models. We ignore their faults or make excuses for them (think Olympic swimmer Ryan Lochte and his three teammates), but we still honor them.

Together, Psalm 27 and Isaiah 58 demand that we stand up to the moral and ethical challenges around us, and actively engage in correcting them.

Isaiah 58 offers a checklist for us to follow.

Workers’ rights: God, through Isaiah, says that even on the Sabbath of Sabbaths, Yom Kippur, we ignore that the Sabbath commandment, at its most basic, is a commandment to recognize the essential equality of all people.

As a society and as individuals, how do we treat our employees? God says we “oppress all [our] laborers.” He is not talking just about the people we employ, but about all employees. The checklist therefore includes whether we actively seek equal pay for equal work; whether we actively seek a fair and just system of maternity leave, for men as well as for women; whether we actively seek a truly living minimum wage.

Individual rights: Psalm 27 demands that we “unlock fetters of wickedness, and untie the cords of the yoke so the oppressed may go free.” So on the checklist go these questions: What do we do about “unlock[ing] fetters of wickedness” here and elsewhere throughout the world on any given day, or in any given year? Do we really care about the plight of the downtrodden, or are we concerned only with ourselves, and at the very most, our immediate circle?

Care for the disadvantaged: We are told to feed the hungry, shelter the homeless, and clothe the naked, understanding that God makes these national requirements, not just individual ones we put on the checklist whether, for example, we buy “feed the poor” coupons at the supermarket checkout counter when we shop for ourselves. We also put on the checklist whether we support candidates for public office who support social assistance programs, or those who would trash those programs so we can get to keep more of our money through tax cuts?

Do we hide our eyes from the truth around us and claim to be “a nation that does what is right, that has not abandoned the laws of its God,” laws that Isaiah 58 clearly implies have little to do with ritual and everything to do with creating a just and equitable world?

Elul is coming. We would do well to consider carefully our answers to God’s challenge.

About the Author
Shammai Engelmayer is rabbi emeritus of Congregation Beth Israel of the Palisades. He hosts adult Jewish education classes twice each week on Zoom, and his weekly “Keep the Faith” podcast may be heard on Apple Podcasts, iHeart Radio, and Stitcher, among other sites. Information on his classes and podcast is available at
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