“I place before you life and good, death and evil. Choose life.” – Deuteronomy 30:19
The month of Elul marks the beginning of a period of introspection and self-evaluation. According to Rebbetzin Giti Fredman, with whom I have had occasion to study, Elul has a special energy or spirituality conducive to teshuvah (repentance, return, or reconnecting with God.) The month of Elul corresponds to the forty days Moses spent on Mount Sinai after the Golden Calf incident. We assess our behavior and spiritual condition, reconcile with enemies, and break out of negative patterns and deadening routines. We acknowledge that our lives are in God’s hands. The theme of Selichot is human guilt and God’s forgiving nature. Rebbetzin Giti says the selichot (prayers said in the days leading up to the High Holy Days) focus on the thirteen attributes of God. We want to embody God’s attributes. We seek to grow in humility, gratitude, patience, honor, generosity, kindness, strength, tranquility, trust, enthusiasm, order, awareness, truth. As God says to Abraham, “Go for yourself” – lech lecha. When we are living according to our highest ideals, we tend to feel better, have better relationships and experiences, and a higher quality of life. In the Ashkenazic tradition, Selichot begins the Saturday night before Rosh Hashanah.
Rabbi Dr. Arthur Segal says the soul God gives us each day is pure; every day is a fresh start. Ritual is a methodology to bring us to chesed, kindness. Judaism is about how we treat other people. With the armor of God, we become more like Teflon than Velcro. We experience a greater sense of inner peace when we understand that everything we have is a loan from God to be shared with others. When we have low self-esteem, we won’t enter the contest no matter how much affirmation we get. Our relationship with God has to be supreme, he says, because we are truly alone in the world. Even our partners and children are just icing on the cake. If others don’t like us, that’s none of our business. Fear leads to sin. We should ask ourselves what fears are motivating undesirable behavior. Without the fears, we don’t do the behaviors. We ask God to remove our fears. We need to recognize that what we have is enough, and who we are is enough. We are entitled to absolutely nothing. We need to practice gratitude and awareness of the daily miracle of existence.
Rosh Hashanah, popularly known as “the Jewish New Year” is really the Human New Year, as it commemorates the creation of Adam and Eve. Everyone is our brother or sister. Rosh Hashanah re-annoints HaShem as Sovereign of the Universe (malchut = kingship.) God is in charge. We are not. We renew our commitment to doing God’s will. God remembers everything we do. What we do matters. We carry our actions with us throughout our lives. When we make sincere teshuvah, God forgives sins against God. Sins against other people can only be forgiven by them. By Rosh Hashanah we should be well into making amends to others. We ask God to write us into the Book of Life. This means we ask to be spiritually connected instead of cut off from our Holy Spark. We seek inner liberation, freedom, clarity, and integration. When we grow spiritually, we help others rise with us. The reverse is also true.
Traditionally, the readings include Genesis 21, which tells the story of Abraham kicking out Hagar and Ishmael, and Genesis 22, which describes Abraham’s journey to sacrifice Isaac at Moriah. According to R’ Segal, there is a Midrash (story) about the Akedah (binding of Isaac) which says Abraham actually goes through with the sacrifice. Isaac carries the wood for the fire, is burned on the altar, dies and is resurrected in three days, as in the Jesus story. Isaac returns after spending three years in Heaven studying with God, during which time he is cured of his “sweetness” (AKA developmental disability), then marries Rebecca. R’ Segal characterizes the story of the Akedah as one of “non-integration.” He says the Midrash on Isaac was removed, or no longer taught, after the emergence of Christianity. My own thoughts on the story of Isaac: 1) God is present in our love for our children, and 2) loving another human being is loving God.
We receive an angelic soul during the Days of Awe, the period from Rosh Hashanah through Yom Kippur, while we concentrate on the spiritual. R’ Segal says God would prefer for us to worship idols and get along with each other than to worship Him while treating each other badly. It is more important to be a good neighbor, and to treat our spouses, children, and others with kindness, to use “honest scales in business.” Judaism teaches that righteous people of all nations have a place in the World to Come. A righteous person is honest in business, treats others with ahavath chesed, and is not sexually violent. This is not complicated.
“To know how fragile the shell of life is, is to learn to handle it with true grace and delicacy.” – Rabbi Irving Greenburg, The Jewish Way
By Yom Kippur we have made teshuvah to others.
“Repent one day before you die.” – Avot 2:15
On Yom Kippur we atone for sins against God. Rebbetzin Giti describes Yom Kippur as a time to work out the details with God about what repentance is going to look like. She also says the binding of Isaac demonstrates Isaac’s willingness to be sacrificed, and as a result, Isaac embodies the promises made by God to Abraham. I wonder if our individual willingness to sacrifice ego-driven desires opens the way to let God into our lives. We reflect on our mortality to remind ourselves to live each day with the awareness, gratitude, and sense of purpose we would if we knew it were our last. It could be. Fasting and abstinence symbolize death of the ego. We also demonstrate we are human beings, not animals – we have the ability to master our instincts, and are capable of change. God is forgiving. When Moses brings down the second set of tablets they contain a more realistic and accepting set of instructions. Each of us is responsible for our own actions. We approach God with our confession, repentance, and request for forgiveness.
R’ Segal questions why Kol Nidre is still in the liturgy. The nullification of vows, he explains, dates back to the Inquisition and was intended to preserve Jewish faith under forced conversion. It was not meant to let people off the hook for breaking promises to each other. The prayer came into use in response to the Crusades. Rabbi Ted Falcon, in Judaism for Dummies, explains that Kol Nidre acknowledges that despite our best intentions, we may make promises to God in the coming year which we will fail to keep. Rabbi Falcon describes Kol Nidre as an advance request for forgiveness.
The communal confession exists because of the belief that we are all one – Israel is a single, collective soul. We don’t live in isolation. We are responsible for one another. Rabbi Segal extends this responsibility to all of humanity. He observes that although the notion of communal responsibility is often used for fundraising, it is meant to teach that when we sin, we drag others down with us. We are all in the same boat. If one passenger begins to drill a hole under his chair, everyone drowns.
On Yom Kippur, we read the story of Jonah, which is a story of sincere teshuvah – not by Jonah, but by the pagan king and the people of Ninevah. The judgment of God begins at the 1st of Elul and continues through Shemini Atzeret. As Rebbetzin Giti puts it, on Rosh Hashanah, God writes the letter; on Yom Kippur, He seals the letter, and on Hoshanah Rabbah, He mails the letter. But there is always an opportunity for teshuvah.