My favorite comic strip of the season is Bart Simpson at the blackboard scrawling repeatedly, “I won’t count how many pages are left in the Machzor (High Holiday prayer book).” Formal prayer is an acquired taste, and its acquisition is best achieved with frequency and familiarity. Hence the Jewish Catch 22: many Jews only show up to pray on the two days a year when the prayers are by far the most long-winded and daunting.
Even with preparation and competent leadership, the High Holidays are still a lot to handle. How can clergy best communicate the essential themes of this period? Ideally, the chazzan keeps the congregation engaged in participatory melody rather than his own showboating. Hopefully, the rabbi avoids politics and uses teaching moments to answer the elephant in the room question: “Why are we here?” The following is a multifaceted answer to that fundamental question, inspired by my brilliant friend, Rabbi Simcha Weinberg.
Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur are truly portals to newness. I’ve heard “you never get a second chance to make a first impression,” but God gives us that very gift during these holidays. We have a completely fresh opportunity to be the people we want to be. The Talmud illustrates that free will only exists in the present. We are judged where we stand at any given moment. On Rosh Hashana, we can establish a radical new direction, regardless of previous transgressions. This opportunity to become new again isn’t just semantics. Our cells are continuously regenerating. We know change is possible because we have changed as a result of our deepest experiences, both triumphant and traumatic.
On the High Holidays, our principle task is to conjure a “first-time” meeting when we pray in the synagogue. The new you. Totally separate from the person you were as you entered the sanctuary. Rosh Hashana is commonly known as the anniversary of the creation of the world. In actuality, it is the birthday of Adam and Eve, the anniversary of the sixth day, the one that really matters. Just like Adam stands alone in a nascent Garden of Eden, the very definition of a fresh start, so, too, can we, on this first day of the year, and every day thereafter.
Adam’s first prayer in the Garden of Eden was one of aspiration. He saw an incomplete world and according to Rashi, felt in his heart, “This could be so much more!” This theme should inform all our prayers during this High Holiday period. We’re not davening for selfish reasons; instead, we see a world of potential and desperately want that potential realized. Interestingly, only when Adam prayed did the rain fall and bring forth the greenery of the garden (Rashi on B’reishit 2:5). In other words, the herbage God created on the third day waited in subterranean suspense until the sixth day when Adam aspired for more. Let us all be like Adam, truly wanting greatness for ourselves and for our world. The High Holiday season is the time to speak these aspirations into being.
God gives Adam a few jobs: take care of the garden, name the animals and avoid certain trees. Adam becomes a “yes-man,” calmly awaiting God’s next command. God perceives this is not ideal (lo tov) and in order to inspire Adam to take initiative and think outside the box, God gives him the gift of a wife. Eve ignites his passion and cajoles him to reach his potential. Adam’s newfound desire with Eve is a good thing: although he eventually eats from the forbidden tree, at least he becomes an active partner with God, not just an employee. This time period, therefore, is the season for the awakening of desire. We sing Zochreynu L’chaim in our prayers, acknowledging God wants us to desire life, to serve proactively as God’s “hands” in the world, to fill our finite days with purpose and beauty.
One of the crucial changes in the Rosh Hashana liturgy is the repeated emphasis of God as Melech, or King. The Shacharit service opens with the cantor’s bold “Hamelech” fanfare and we make the “Melech” insertions in the Amidah or risk having to start the whole thing from the beginning. Having a king as our celestial Parent elevates us to the rank of prince or princess. Our sages tell us that we earned our regal pedigree as the offspring of our exemplary matriarchs and patriarchs. The Akeidah, the binding of Yitzchak, which we read about on the second day of Rosh Hashana, seals our royal status in the eyes of the angelic realms. Note that it’s an angel who responds to Avraham’s heroic act (B’reishit 22:12). The angels needed convincing that humankind was worthy of Torah and this episode sealed the deal. If we do our job over the High Holidays, we emerge whitewashed of sin, at parity with the angels, reunited with our Creator and our meritorious ancestors. We leave in royal robes, aware of our inner beauty, aspiring to make the world a proper kingdom for God.
It’s not only Rosh Hashana where we see mention of God’s kingship. An important part of our Yom Kippur service is the re-enactment of the procedures followed by the priests in the Beit Hamikdash (Holy Temple). The reason for this Avodah service is not only to commemorate what was. It’s to remember we had a palace, God’s palace, a national central address fit for our Monarch. The sound of the shofar is a coronation trumpet; the unforgettable major key cadence of the evening High Holiday prayers is the coronation suite. Thanks to the genius of the Ba’al Haturim (Rabbi Yaakov ben Asher, 1269-1343), we know the gematria of Beit Hamikdash equals 861. So, too, does the word Rosh Hashana. An integral connection binds both concepts, inspiring us to reclaim our regal heritage and turn our hearts towards Jerusalem.
Perhaps the best answer to the “why are we here?” question: we are being judged. While it is serious business, we should be happy about it. Shvitzing in a synagogue for endless hours to be judged? I’ll take the beach! But the reality is that we crave judgment. We’re desperate to know we are on a true path. We spend millions on success coaches, consultants and seminars to realign our trajectories and reach our goals. The idea of God judging us should provide a sense of comfort that God cares.
The number one hit on the High Holiday Top 40 is Avinu Malkeinu, the moving prayer referring to Hashem as Father and King. Judgment is considered a masculine aspect of our Creator. While we hope for mercy and kindness, the feminine aspect of Godliness, Rosh Hashana requires welcoming God’s unflinching assessment of our personal progress.
Yom Kippur is about begging forgiveness for the times that we didn’t make God King. There is a cleansing power implicit in the day, absolving us of all our collective shortcomings, giving us a fresh start in the relationship. Once we learn the intricacies of halacha, it becomes clear how easy it is to transgress. What a gift that a single twenty-five hour period of earnest prayer can wipe away every forgotten blessing, every vow, every illicit thought. The pageantry of Kol Nidrei opens the proceedings with a fanfare announcing the Heavenly Court. Over the course of the five services of the day, we have multiple repetitions of the Vidui (Confession) to ensure we cover every possible transgression. Just like the Amidah, the Vidui is in the plural, in other words, on this Day of Awe (or Awesome Day), seeking forgiveness is a team effort.
How is it possible we can fix everything? Does God really forgive? Does God love humanity enough to care about each one of us? Remarkably, the answer is yes. A chet (sin) means “missing the mark;” in other words, there is no truly intentional sin. We are “off target” in life simply because we don’t perceive the gravity of our actions. Any personal shortcomings serving as the impetus to repair our relationship can become mitzvot—in the long run, they get us closer to Hashem. Rather than pounding one’s chest for poor choices, may I suggest—do it gently, with a smile inside, knowing God judges us with compassion and is ALWAYS ready for us to come home.
The High Holidays are about restoring what we always have inside, which is a sweet, loving child. Our inner child is quick to recover from a setback, is openly affectionate and sees the world with wide-eyed wonder. That child knows he is beautiful in his parents’ eyes and since the world revolves around him, he can be a tyrant prince. When a toddler cries, a few moments later she may be laughing with joyous abandon. Rabbi Weinberg quotes the Zohar, stating that the shofar blast is really a lullaby. Imagine that the final tekiyah gedolah at the end of Yom Kippur is an extended lullaby from God, just for you. This is why we are here.