Actually, I no longer think of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur as High Holidays or even as High Holy Days. I think of them as being part of the “Days of Awe (“Yamim Noraim” in Hebrew). That phrase reflects the high-stakes nature of the soul-searching that Jews are supposed to do for ten days, starting with Rosh Hashanah and ending with Yom Kippur. It also conveys the anxiety we're supposed to feel in that time. According to Jewish tradition, Rosh Hashanah is when God determines “who shall live and who shall die” during the coming year. The righteous get inscribed in the Book of Life, the wicked - in the Book of Death. But since most of us are neither fully righteous nor fully wicked, we have until Yom Kippur to repent. Then our fate is sealed.
The stakes can't get much higher than that.
Before Yom Kippur, Jews are supposed to seek forgiveness from those they've wronged....But I now understand how we need that level of soul-searching every year, whether we're religious or not. The Days of Awe are meant to keep Jews humble. They help us renew our spirit and heal our relationships. They spur us to compassionate action, so that we can begin again, become whole again, and deepen our commitment to serving humanity and God.
Lee Kravitz's words are right on the mark. It's pretty rare for a non-cleric, “not really religious” person to speak so eloquently and, let's face it, religiously, on what is SO central to the Days of Awe. All too often we are caught between two very self-satisfied positions. One is called Spiritual Materialism by the great Buddhist teacher Trumpa Rimpoche. Some see themselves as so “far ahead” in their spiritual practice that all they can do is look over their shoulders and judge others. Then there is another form of self satisfaction best exemplified by the occultist, Aleister Crowley, “Do what thou wilt, shall be the whole of the law.” What is there to atone or regret? Just do it.
But Judaism and Kravitz tell us an unpopular message: there is something outside of us that is the benchmark, and The Days of Awe call us to that. I don't think of it as we die for our deeds. We all die, but how many of us truly live; being awake? How many of us are sleepwalking in the Mall of Life, just being amused and entertained and vaguely aware that there is something else going on out there? All too often life ends and we didn't get done...what was it? I don't even remember. When I think of Judaism and the Torah I basically see it as a spiritual practice to make us aware of every moment. So, as we get ready for the New Year can we really see it that way, or does it simply run together? Does anything change? Do we change and for the better?
Too much of our society spends its time looking at the spectacle. Reality TV is primarily based on that. Our society likes to ridicule others but spends very little time on introspection. That is why I have such a fondness for this spiritual path and others that are introspective. As we turn or re-turn in Teshuvah (wrongly translated as repentance) I hope this year finds all of you rewarded with new vision and renewal.
- Rabbi Yosef Zylberberg, September 2014