Apples, honey, round challot and fasting. For most Jews, this economical summation of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur evokes a cascade of memories, images and feelings. Included in the liturgy are repeated references to The Book of Life, in which our names – and deeds – are inscribed. On Rosh Hashanah it is written, and on Yom Kippur it is sealed.
The Yamim Noraim, the Ten Days of Repentance bookended by those holidays, is the time when those of us not all good or completely wicked (i.e., most of us) can, by engaging in repentance (tshuva), prayer and tzedakah, “avert a harsh decree.” The phrase comes from the Unataneh Tokef, an 11th-century piyyut, or religious poem that is part of the High Holiday liturgy. (It’s the inspiration for Leonard Cohen’s 1974 song, “Who by Fire.”)
The period is seen as a time when every Jewish adult is on trial. But rather than taking place in a court of law before a jury of our peers, the setting is inside ourselves, and G-d is the judge. In synagogue, we engage in communal prayer and communal confession. In our daily lives, too, there are things we can do to extend the holiness of the season.
Lex Rofes, a Milwaukee native who grew up at Congregation Sinai, is a third-year student in the rabbinic program at ALEPH, The Alliance for Jewish Renewal in New York. He is also the strategic initiatives coordinator at the Institute For the Next Jewish Future, which, among other things, produces “Judaism Unbound,” a weekly podcast.
“I love what Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur and what the whole season does in the context of the rest of the year,” Rofes said, “because they represent the chance for Jews on an individual level to take stock of themselves and look inward.”
Rabbi Marcey Rosenbaum, educator at Congregation Shalom, concurred.
“I would encourage people to take it for the gift that it is,” she said. “I would urge them to start this preparation in the month of Elul, because tradition teaches that much the way that summertime in the Northern Hemisphere
is closest to the sun, Elul and the 10 days of Tishrei are theologically the time when G-d is in the closest proximity to us.”
That inward look, said Rabbi Steve Adams, director of Pastoral Care at Ovation Communities, should include thoughts and actions both good and not-so-good.
“There’s a value in reflecting on what you did that was great and to celebrate successes, but also to balance that with honestly facing what could be better and what needs improvement,” he said.
All three stressed the importance of reflection, particularly in the context of relationships.
Think about relationships
“Judaism is about relationships,” Rosenbaum said, “so this period of time should inspire us to really think about how we are in relationships with G-d, with others and with ourselves.”
Part of that, she said, means examining the ways in which we regard ourselves and treat others, and honestly examining and owning “missteps and missed marks” as well as successes.
Even if, like Adams, you don’t hesitate to forgive or apologize for individual actions as necessary throughout the year, like him, you can take advantage of the season to make amends to someone you may have inadvertently offended.
“This is a great time of year to do more blanket apologies, which I do in case I’ve offended somebody without realizing it,” he said. “The purpose of Holidays isn’t to repent and go back and sin again, but it’s so easy to insult somebody without realizing you’ve done so.”
Both Rofes and Rosenbaum said they make a point of reaching out to people they may not have seen or spoken with recently, but who matter to them.
“We should apologize for our wrongs,” Rosenbaum said, “but we should also take this time for appreciating the gifts of care, compassion and gratitude, because we don’t know who’s going to live and who’s going to die, and this is a good time to make sure all the people in your life know that you love them and that you care about them.”
“It might not be that I have wronged them,” Rofes said, “but I want to check in, to connect and reconnect with people.”
He also uses the time between the two holidays to connect and reconnect with the Torah and Haftorah readings.
“On the actual holidays I’m in the room and sometimes I’m reading them, or others are reading them,” he said. Even so, he admitted that it was sometimes a challenge to focus as completely as he’d like to in those moments.
That’s another reason he’s grateful for the space between the two holidays.
“I take that time to do a deep dive into the Torah readings that preceded that 10 days and the days that follow it, because I think they are so incredibly rich,” he said.
“I love those books and I think they can get lost among Kol Nidre and Avinu Malkenu and the pounding on our chests and the shofar,” he said, “so I use those days to make sure I get my full vitamins from those texts.”
“You have the famous story of Hannah in a book named after her son, which is the perfect text for somebody looking to find an answer to ‘Why do we pray? or ‘What’s prayer?’” he said of the Rosh HaShanah Haftorah reading from Samuel.
“Jonah is fascinating and enriching and riveting,” he said of the Yom Kippur afternoon Haftorah reading, “and it gives us a lot to think about in terms of suffering. It’s a bite-sized book that opens up some super-big-picture questions about punishment and why and how G-d does or doesn’t intervene in human affairs, depending on your theological views,” he said.
For Adams, the totality of the synagogue experience during Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur is, ideally, an important part of the reflective process.
“It takes more than just words to touch a person’s soul,” he said. “The music, the liturgy and the blessings can move us to a higher level than just plain words.”
Another opportunity for contemplation is the Fast of Gedalia, which follows the second day of Rosh Hashanah. Gedalia was the governor of Judea in the period just after the destruction of the First Temple; his assassination marked the end of Jewish rule in the region.
The Yom Kippur fast, for Rofes, adds a significant dimension to the reflective process.
“For me, Yom Kippur looms a little larger than Rosh HaShanah because the ability to do all that thinking and investigation of myself is elevated by the fast.”
Rofes said the fast helps center him in the internal work of exploring what he can shift about himself. He also acknowledged that that is not the case for everyone. And, he said, his take on that is not necessarily traditional.
“If the fast is a distraction from that internal work,” he said. “I would argue they should consider the extent to which they should fast or not.”
He was equally clear that he was not encouraging people to eat the way they would on any other day, “but that if you have to have some amount of something to engage with repentance and inward contemplation, you should.”
Tshuva, and the gift of another year to work toward being a better and holier version of oneself is, after all, the point of the High Holy Days.
“My hope has always been that the sermons and services during Rosh HaShanah get people started on that path and Yom Kippur becomes a first deadline so that people can finish that contemplative stage of turning their lives around,” Adams said. “Once that has happened, it’s easier to change actions.”