The Come Down from the High (Holidays)
If I had to compare it to any other time on the calendar, the period of the High Holidays comes in the lead as the most paradoxical. Those 10 long days, starting with the first day of Rosh Hashanah and culminating with that ultimate Day of Judgment, Yom Kippur, carry with them themes of atonement, forgiveness, regret and reflection. We try to draw from within ourselves feelings that may go suppressed throughout the rest of the year in an attempt to make a genuine effort to prove that our betterment is not just a show to curry favor with the Higher Power but that it comes from honest feeling. At the same time, the services of both Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur focus and acknowledge that these are days of universal judgment, a pageant where every individual passes before God and He judges what type of year each member of his flock will receive.
Every year we ask which of the spring lambs will suffer and which will find themselves at ease, and add additional verses focusing on how judgment will be rendered. Within the prayers we say, we pray for the judgment of the world at large in various ways such as which areas will see drought or flourishing crops, and something that may have been seen far-fetched but begs a shoutout nowadays: Who will suffer from a plague? As I read the English translations in the machzor, I saw that there is an overarching message that yes, we as humans are flawed; “it’s in our nature” to borrow the iconic and oft-quoted verse from liturgy, however that’s not all we have going for us. No, all we need to do is remember who we are apart from the sins and the flaws, that when polished, shined and sheened, we are described as the children of God, members of His chosen people, an exclusive club marked and joined together by the collective sufferings sprinkled throughout our shared history that began 5781 years ago. It’s with this divine endowment that we merit the knowledge that God is that loving Father, wishing and wanting each of us to return to Him, to come back with our pockets emptied and folded outward, clothing ripped asking Him to remember those days of youth when the garments he clothed us in were new and still bearing the tags that we may have torn off or were otherwise removed.
But it is here that I stared face to face with both a moral and philosophical paradox as I sat through the davening and, in this time, came to the eventual reconciliation that had to take place for a general understanding of the value of these holidays to be internalized. How is it that we can stand face to face with God and beg Him to wash us clean of our muddiness without any concrete proof that we mean what we say? Sure, we can follow the guidelines laid out in the prayer of Unetaneh Tokef that through acts of charity, repentance and prayer, we will merit a favorable decree but in today’s day and age what do these mean exactly? Hasn’t the act of charity become so passive that with a click of a button we’ve fulfilled the donation aspect of giving money without a direct knowledge of whom or what we are actually helping? Have we not all received those same messages that, though bearing our first names at the beginning, can’t help but seem cut and pasted, forwarded to dozens of people in the attempt to unspecifically ask for forgiveness from anything that may have happened over the course of the long year?
(And yes, I acknowledge that this comes off as jaded and cynical, condescending even, as though I am attempting to make a mockery of people’s best intentions and give off a tone that I am “holier than thou” but I do these things as often during that time of year as the next person.)
But all of these attempts, as remote and indifferent as they come across from the outside, helped me understand something greater, namely, the fact that God Himself isn’t looking to measure our honesty levels like a temperature check on an infrared thermometer, standing before his gates ready to turn anyone away due to insufficient merits or half-heartedness, because that’s not the point of those 10 “Days of Awe.” There is no set level to how many “good deeds” one needs to perform or how many “bad deeds” one can do before their membership status is revoked. And it’s a bit reassuring as we stand there, stomachs growling and heads spinning, to know that we are still allowed to walk into the door of His houses across the world and own up to what we did this past year with pride; that our inevitable moral failings are not what define us any more than the good that we accomplished in the year that’s now behind us. It helps make the pill go down easier and allows us to both accept the awesome nature of the day without feeling like we’re in an impossible catch-22 situation or playing a zero-sum game with Someone who views threads of time as nothing more than a falling eyelash after a blink. And it’s what ultimately allows us to be able to sound that final shofar blast and look up from our prayer books and say “Next Year in Jerusalem!”
May God make it a reality for all of us.
Photo Caption: “Jews Praying in the Synagogue on Yom Kippur” by Maurycy Gottlieb (1878)
Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons