The ancient rabbis referred to the period between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur by a number of names. One, “bein Kesseh Le’Asor,” means between Kesseh (the full moon, Psalm 81), another name for Rosh Hashanah in the Torah, and Asor, “the tenth,” meaning of course Yom Kippur, which falls on the tenth of Tishrei. The other, more commonly used phrase is the Asseret Y’mei T’shuvah- literally, the ten days of penitence.
The idea of there being “ten days of penitence” is, at first blush, strange to Jews who pray the liturgy of the siddur on a daily basis. Those who attend services only on the High Holidays may think that beating one’s breast as we recite the “Al Chet” is a practice unique to Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, but the regular worshipper knows that we do it every day, three times a day, when, in the Amidah, we recite the exact same words that we do on the holidays… S’lach lanu Avinu ki chatahnu; Forgive us, Father, for we have sinned. Seeking atonement for our sins is not a three-day-a-year exercise for the practicing Jew. It is a 365-day-a-year exercise. We are always eager for spiritual cleansing. It is not an extraordinary event for us to reach out to God for forgiveness.
That said, these Asseret Y’Mei T’shuvah are “extraordinary” in a real and important way, for two important ways. First, they are biblically mandated as a time of penitence and atonement. And second, because of that, they are what the rabbis refer to as a sh’at ratzon; they represent a special “time of favor” in which God is predisposed, as it were, to hear our earnest prayers and forgive us. It’s not that God isn’t listening at other times. God always “hears” us. But these ten days are singled out as a particularly propitious time for us to seek forgiveness.
Rabbinic Judaism teaches that those who are totally righteous are inscribed and sealed in the “Book of Life” on Rosh Hashanah, and those who are totally evil are inscribed and sealed in the “other book.” Once again, this is to be understood as a metaphor, but even within the metaphor, few and far between are those who fall into either of these two categories. The greatest tzadikim, righteous people, are not without sin, and conversely, it is rarely true that even thoroughly evil people are lacking some redeeming quality.
Everybody else, those who are neither totally righteous nor totally wicked, are referred to by tradition as beinoni’im. Literally, it means “those in the middle,” but a better translation in this context might be “morally mediocre.” We are neither here nor there, sometimes capable of greatness, other times capable of being totally disappointing. For those of us in this category, essentially, all of us, Yom Kippur is supremely important, for our final judgment, the ultimate determination of our destinies for the coming year, hangs in the balance during these ten days.
If one takes our traditions at all seriously, these Asseret Y’mei T’shuvah at the beginning of the month of Tishrei are, from an existential perspective, an exquisitely fragile and delicate time. This season of penitence is, for all intents and purposes, the only time that we allow ourselves, sometimes with difficulty, to “go to those places” that we most often avoid. Do I like my life? Am I proud of it? Am I happy with my values? Am I using my time wisely? Am I in any way making a difference in the world?
Our penitential prayers are, famously, all written in the plural, so that as we ask for forgiveness for ourselves, we are also praying the community. It is in that spirit that I join with you in the hope that our destiny for the coming year, as individuals and as a Jewish people, be a positive one. May we all be privileged to feel cleansed and redeemed as these Ten Days of Penitence draw to a close, and may the lives that we lead reflect the myriad blessings that we are privileged to enjoy.
Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is the spiritual leader of the Forest Hills Jewish Center in Queens.