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The Ten Days of Repentance

  

 

…In the seventh month, on the first day of the month, you shall observe a day of rest, a memorial proclaimed with the blowing of the shofar, a holy convocation…

 

 

Leviticus 23:24-25


On the first day of the Hebrew month of Tishri (usually in September), the Jewish people celebrate the festival of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. It is a joyous time, as any new year celebration would be, but it is also steeped in religious significance, for with this holiday begins the Yamin Noraim, the Days of Awe or the Ten Days of Repentance, leading to Yom Kippur. Rosh Hashanah, then, is more than the first day of the year. It is the beginning of a ten-day period of self-examination, prayer, repentance, and charity. By tradition, Rosh Hashanah is designated as a Day of Judgment (Yom Hadin), in which God sits in judgment of each individual and the world. The image of God deciding whether to inscribe us in the “Book of Life” for a good and happy year, reminds us of our moral responsibilities and the need to repent of our sins. The ten days of repentance provides us with an opportunity to reflect on our mistakes, to correct them, and to seek redemption from God. Not only do we seek forgiveness from God but also from people whom we may have wronged. It is important to reconfirm our relationship with God and others and to achieve reconciliation. So important was this ten-day period of reflection that rabbinic sages declared the entire preceding Hebrew month of Elul as a time of preparation in which we recite special penitential prayers. We also traditionally describe Rosh Hashanah as the anniversary of the creation of the world, hence another reason to examine ourselves, to endeavor to improve ourselves, and to do so with a feeling of gratitude for the simple gift of being alive. It is a multifaceted holiday, biblically ordained as a “holy convocation,” with a number of important spiritual themes emanating from it.

The blowing of the shofar (the ram's horn) is the rite most closely associated with the day. The Torah proclaims the first day of Tishri as a holy day, a “…sacred occasion commemorated with loud blasts...” The shofar, in general, is a powerful symbol for the Jewish people. It appears frequently in the Bible as a central feature of ritual practice. It recalls important biblical events such as the thwarting of the sacrifice by Abraham of his son, Isaac, by substituting a ram (Genesis 22, which, by the way, we read for Rosh Hashanah), or the use of the shofar during the conquest of Jericho by Joshua (Joshua 6:1-20). It is a reminder of the shofar blasts at Mount Sinai before Moses received the Torah (Exodus 19:16) and when Jews were closest to God. It is an inspiring summons to a Messianic future and proclamation of God's dominion over the world. The sound of the shofar, then, is a Divine call to return to the faith, to repent of one's sins, and to seek redemption and forgiveness from God.

 

“…Praised art thou O Lord who sanctifies us with His commandments and commands us to blow the shofar…”

 

 

My son, Noah, recites this blessing in Hebrew - and then delivers a mighty blast. His older sister, Arielle, next takes her turn. With the proper blessing, she too blows heartily into the ram's horn, a long spiraling bony instrument from Israel, producing a resonant sound. Thus, we fulfill the commandment (mitzvah) to hear the sound of the shofar on Rosh Hashanah. My one and half year old, Adina, is dumbfounded, but after a pause claps her hands approvingly. We are at the dinner table and conducting our own Rosh Hashanah service. The table has been set in the manner for the Sabbath (which, for Jews, occurs on Friday evenings), with decorative tablecloth, two candles (already lit by my wife after the proper blessings, to begin the holiday), and an ornamental goblet (Kiddush cup) with wine. The word Kiddush means “sanctification,” and the blessing and sharing of wine “sanctifies” the event. There is also Challah bread. This is a special braided egg bread with sesame or poppy seeds sprinkled on top to remind us of the manna that fell from heaven. The Challah bread also reminds us of the sacrifice at the ancient Temple in Jerusalem. For Rosh Hashanah the Challah bread is round to symbolize the continuing cycle of the seasons and years. The round Challah also resembles a crown, thus symbolizing the kingship of God. After reciting the blessing over the bread (the Hamotzi), we break off pieces to eat. We do not use a knife for a knife is also a weapon and the holiday table should be a place of peace.

“…May God bless you and keep you. May God make His countenance shine upon you and deal graciously with you. May God lift His face towards you and give you peace…”

 

 

It is also customary at this time for the father to bless the children. I place my hands over the heads of my two older children (Arielle and Noah) who stand on either side of me. Adina is sitting on my lap while my wife, Ying, holds Isaiah (age five months). I recite the above blessing in Hebrew. This is the same invocation used by Aaron (and his sons), brother of Moses, to bless the ancient Israelites in the desert (as commanded by God - Numbers 6:22-27). This is one of my favorite traditions, ripe as it is with the strength of the millennia (recited since the earliest days of our people) and for the effect it has on my children. They rush forward to receive the blessing, showing respect for our ancient ways and for their father, a binding of the generations. Special also to the holiday are the apples and honey. This is to signify our hope for a good and sweet new year. They recite in Hebrew the blessing: “Lord our God and God of our people, may the New Year be good and sweet for us.” They dip the apple slices into the honey and gobble them up. Having completed the rituals of the holiday, we recite the traditional greeting of the season, “Leshanah Tovah Tikatevu,” which in Hebrew means “May you be inscribed (in the Book of Life) for a good year,” expressing our hope that God will look favorably upon us and bless us. We sit down for the holiday meal…

 

…You will cast all your sins into the depths of the sea...
Micah 7:19

 

The next afternoon, we perform the ceremony of Tashlich. Typically, it is done at a river or brook with fish in it, but as I have a pond populated by Koi fish, I conveniently take advantage of it. Arielle and Noah recite the special penitential prayers. “…Who is a God like thee, pardoning iniquity and passing over transgression…” (Micah). And from selected Psalms: “…Out of the depths I cry to thee, O Lord…” (Psalm 130) As enjoined by Micah the prophet, we toss breadcrumbs into the water. Adina, too, takes a small handful of crumbs and hurls them into our little pond. Some of the fish nibble on the tiny crumbs. The crumbs represent our sins, which we symbolically cast out, starting afresh for the New Year. We spend the remainder of the day in leisurely activity, a day of rest (…You shall observe complete rest… Leviticus 23:23). Visits with friends and relatives are part of the day, part of the Simcha (joy) of the holiday…

 

…Our Father, our King…

 

 

Over the ten days spanning Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur (Aseret Yemei Teshuvah - the Ten Days of Repentance), special penitential prayers (Tefillah) are recited. After the morning service, I read the Alvinu Malkenu (Our Father, our King), a prayer asking God for forgiveness. “…Our Father, Our King, turn us not away empty from Thy presence…” In the evening, I recite the Selichot (meaning, in Hebrew, forgiveness), the wondrous liturgy that recounts the sins we have committed and our hopes for forgiveness and redemption:

“…Come, let us return to the Lord; for though it is He who has wounded, He will heal us. Though He has smitten, He will bind up our wounds…”

 

The prayers are among the most compelling and beautiful pieces of religious poetry I have ever seen. Consistent with the spirit of the season, we donate to organizations helping to serve the needy, complying with the mitzvah of Tzedakah (charity). We also have a special Tzedakah box (a replica, by the way, of a famous synagogue in Florence, Italy) in which the children deposit coins each Sabbath and holiday for charity. Even Adina, with her tiny fingers, manages to place a few tokens into the narrow slot (she brightens with our hearty applause). Repentance (Teshuvah) is another important theme at this time, which includes reconciliation with others we may have wronged. I encourage Arielle and Noah (who occasionally tussle) to offer each other apologies for wrongs they may have committed. They giggle - and do not comply (not quite ready for that bold leap). The process of repentance that begins with Rosh Hashanah, in which Jews take the first steps towards atonement, culminates on Yom Kippur...

 

 

…For on this day atonement shall be made for you to cleanse you of all your sins; you shall be clean. It shall be a Sabbath of complete rest for you and you shall practice self-denial; it is a law for all time…
Leviticus 16:30-31

 

Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, occurs on the tenth day of Tishri. It is a day devoted completely to self-examination, confession, and atonement, a day of prayer and reflection. Yom Kippur is also known as Shabbat Shabbaton, a Sabbath of complete rest, the Sabbath of Sabbaths, a day when no work is done, a day of concentration on the past so that the future may be better. It provides us with an opportunity to alter our conduct, readjust our values, and set things right in our lives. The day demands honesty as we confess our wrongdoings: “We have sinned, we have transgressed, we have done perversely…” A primary element of the day moving us towards atonement is the mitzvot (commandment) to fast. The Torah states three times, “…you shall practice self denial (by fasting)…”

We begin the evening meal on Yom Kippur before the sacred holiday begins, in contrast to the usual sequence (in which the meal commences after the ceremony initiating the holiday). For in this case, when we light the candles, the holiday begins - and so does the fast. Upon completing the meal, Noah kindles the lights and recites the special blessings. “…Blessed is the Lord our God, Ruler of the Universe, who hallows us with mitzvot and commands us to kindle the lights of the Day of Atonement…” he reads in Hebrew. Arielle is wondering if she has to fast. She is twelve and almost a Bat Mitzvah (which means that in a year, when she is 13, she will be responsible for following Jewish Law). I give her a more moderate way out. “If you want you can do it for just half a day,” I say. She is agreeable… Jewish holidays proceed from sunset to sunset; it is, therefore, a full 24-hour period in which no eating or drinking is permitted. I bless the children. I again implore them to reconcile with each other. Amazingly, in perfect spirit with the holiday, they apologize and forgive each other. I am delighted. They have earned their blessing. We go to synagogue to listen to Kol Nidrei, the special liturgical formula that annuls all unintended vows; we recite it three times to a haunting and mesmerizing melody…

In biblical days, the Israelites observed Yom Kippur differently. The high priest or Kohen of the ancient temple in Jerusalem performed a rite of expiation on behalf of the entire people. The Kohen sacrificed one goat as a sin offering. The Kohen then placed his hands on another goat and confessed all the sins of the people; the goat was then driven into the wilderness, carrying with it the sins of the people (hence the name “scapegoat”).

The next day, Arielle breaks her fast at noon. I am pleased. Noah does not even attempt it. He is only nine and loves eating dearly. He munches ecstatically on a chocolate bar replete with smacking noises and moans of pleasure in front of me. I am not amused.

 

We return to the synagogue. A common greeting is heard. It is “Gemar Chatimah Tovah” (May you be sealed [in the book of life] for good). By tradition, the Book of Life is sealed at the close of Yom Kippur. This is a friendly wish to others that they have a benevolent fate. On Yom Kippur, Rabbi wears white, a symbol of purity. Orthodox Jews are buried in white and so it can be interpreted as a sign of our mortality and hence the need for humility and repentance. Yizkor, or Remembrance, an important part of the Yom Kippur service, is a special liturgy on behalf of parents, other important relatives, and the martyrs of our people who have died. We recite Yizkor on Yom Kippur and four other times during the Jewish year. We light a special 24-hour memorial candle in the home just before the onset of Yom Kippur. The Book of Jonah is typically read on Yom Kippur; this story depicts the sparing of the people of Nineveh because of their repentance. At the end of a full day of worship, with the sun setting, we recite the Ne-ilah (concluding service), in which we make our final plea to God for forgiveness:

“…turning away from oppression and violence, we may turn back to You and do Your will with a perfect heart…”

 

With the end of this powerful prayer, we listen to the sound of the shofar. Many of the congregants have brought their own shofar. We have ours. I let Noah have at it. He delivers a long, sonorous blast, his one opportunity to make a lot of noise without getting in trouble. Shofar music fills the entire sanctuary as many others deliver their own piercing sounds. There is a feeling of relief and joy. We have completed our obligations and have turned inward. We have reconciled ourselves with God and others; there is a sense of Divine Forgiveness as we look forward to a new year of favor and mercy. Afterwards, we go to the social hall for the “break the fast.” The mood is festive and exuberant. We enjoy a delicious meal with family and other members of the congregation. It is a fresh start with the slate wiped clean. We return home content...

 

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