The Days of Awe

One of the questions readers of What’s in It For Me? Finding Ourselves in Biblical Narratives have asked concerns references to the Jewish High Holy Days in the chapter “What If I Don’t Believe in God.” In response to that question, this essay explains the meaning of that sacred season to Jews.

 

Behold, it is the Day of Judgment. As a shepherd musters his sheep, causing them to pass under his staff, so do You cause every living soul to pass before You . . .
On Rosh Hashanah it is written
On Yom Kippur it is sealed
How many shall be born
Who shall live and who shall die
Who shall complete his years . . .
And who shall not complete his years
Who shall be serene and who shall be disturbed
Who shall be at ease and who shall be afflicted
Who shall be poor and who shall be rich . . .
But repentance, prayer, and deeds of kindness and compassion avert the severity of the decree!

The prayer excerpt above, written by Kalonymous ben Meshullam in the eleventh century, starkly expresses the High Holy Day mood of impending judgment. During the Days of Awe (the ten-day period between Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, and Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement), serious Jews strip away the veneer of our righteousness and prepare for God’s scrutiny. It is the culmination of an intense period of introspection and self-reflection in which we examine who we have been with an eye toward who we want to be. During the Days of Awe, we humbly acknowledge our shortcomings and resolve to improve in the year ahead.

Although the language of the prayers clearly addresses our relationship with God, the significance of this period does not diminish for those Jews who find themselves unable to relate to God in a personal sense. The process of self-examination, contrition, and resolve can be as therapeutically valid for the atheist as for the Orthodox Jew and everyone whose religious beliefs fall somewhere in between.

When Jews seek forgiveness for the shortcomings and wrongful acts, we do not ask for supernatural absolution for shortcoming inherent in our nature. The Hebrew word for “sin,” חטא, (chet) connotes an action that we regret, but which is within our power to correct. The Days of Awe provide us with a special opportunity—although certainly we should try to be aware of the impact of our actions all the time—to ponder, reconsider, and adjust our behavior in a positive direction.

The most distinctive part of the Rosh Hashanah ritual is the blowing of the shofar or ram’s horn. According to the thirteenth-century philosopher/physician/commentator Moses Maimonides, the piercing sounds of the shofar cry out to us like a spiritual alarm clock with the following message: “Awake from your slumber, you who are asleep. Wake up . . . search your deeds and repent . . . amend your ways and deeds!”

The sound of the shofar, noted Saadia Gaon in the tenth century, reminds us of the way just and merciful monarchs operate: First, they warn the people of their decrees; but if they do not heed the warning, violators are held accountable. The shofar is a spiritual warning to remind us of the way God wishes us to live our lives.

Yom Kippur arrives ten days after Rosh Hashanah. On it, we observe a complete fast and spend the entire day in prayer and meditation.

More than two thousand years ago, the philosopher Philo endorsed the Yom Kippur fast “because of the self-restraint which it entails.” The fast reminds Jews that true repentance (which leads to improved conduct) requires much self-control. Abstaining from all food and drink from sunset on the eve of the holy day until after dark the next day gives all of us an inkling of what it means to be really hungry. The experience reminds us of our obligation to alleviate hunger in whatever way we can wherever it exists. It also reminds us to cause no one to suffer privation through our actions. One of the wonderful innovations of modern Jewish life is that many synagogues conduct massive food drives. We bring the food from which we abstain—and them some—to the synagogue to distribute to local food banks. It was a great source of pride to me in my congregation in West Hartford to have two moving vans parked outside the synagogue on Yom Kippur and see them filled up with food.
I hasten to note that no one should fast if doing so would cause a medical hardship. Such people are not only permitted to eat; they are commanded to do so.

The most striking portion of the Day of Atonement liturgy is the chanting of the Kol Nidre prayer at the beginning of the service on Yom Kippur Eve. The haunting melody, to which the cantor sings an ancient Aramaic legal formula, symbolizes for many both the anguish and the hope of the Jewish experience. Leo Tolstoy once remarked, “The Kol Nidre is of all melodies the saddest, and yet the most uplifting.” The text of the prayer, which some consider nearly 1,500 years old, ask God to absolve us of rash vows we might have made or might make but be unable to fulfill. Many times in history, tyrants forced us to disavow our religion to save our lives. The Kol Nidre brought comfort and a feeling of absolution from those vows we made under duress.

Anti-Semites jump on the prayer as an escape clause for Jews to get out of obligations we do not wish to meet. In a disputation before King Louis IX of France in 1240, Rabbi Yechiel of Paris successfully defended the Kol Nidre prayer against that charge by pointing out that Jewish law explicitly states that Yom Kippur rituals and prayers only cover transgressions against God. “For sins between one person and another, Yom Kippur does not affect atonement until the offender appeases the one that he or she wronged” (Mishnah Yoma 8:9).

The same Mishnah dispels the notion that Yom Kippur absolves the individual who sins capriciously. The text states, “If one says, ‘I will sin and repent continuously,’ he will not be given an opportunity to repent. If one says, ‘I will sin and the Day of Atonement will affect Atonement,’ then the Day of Atonement does not affect atonement.”

Jewish tradition acknowledges that attaining the humility, contrition, and resolve necessary for sincere repentance is no easy task. The Talmud accords the highest praise to one who successfully turns from his or her misdeeds, stating, “Where repentant sinners stand, even the thoroughly righteous cannot stand.” Maimonides commented that the reward for penitents is so great because they must exert even greater effort than the thoroughly righteous to avoid going astray.

Though the theme of the Days of Awe is judgment, the rabbis of old viewed God more as a compassionate parent than as a stern, impartial magistrate. In the eyes of the sages, God is well aware of the difficulties of repentance and is eager to do everything possible to help us return to the right path. In one parable, the rabbis liken God to a parent whose son was a distance of one hundred days from home. His friends advise him to return to his parents. He answered, “I cannot; I do not have the strength.”

His father sent him a message, saying, “Come as far as you are able, and I will come the rest of the way to you.” (Midrash Pesikta Rabati, Shuvah Yisrael) The story suggests that atonement during the Days of Awe is neither an act of God’s unearned grace nor the result of humanity’s unilateral struggle. It is rather the wonderful product of a covenantal partnership that allows those who take the process seriously to enter the New Year feeling cleansed and renewed.

Elul Arrives

Rabbi Simcha Bunam, an 18th-19 C Hasidic leader in Poland taught that everyone should have two pockets, each inscribed with a different quotation. In one, for when he/she is feeling puffed up and full of pride, let there be the reminder, “I am but dust and ashes!” In the other pocket, when a person feels that his/her efforts are of no consequence, let her/him read: “For my sake the world was created.”

 During this month of Elul we Jews dedicate our thoughts to examining our actions and thoughts during the past year with the goal of becoming kinder and more caring in the year ahead. If our self-scrutiny is honest we know that there are many times we have fallen short of both our own ideals and the Almighty’s hopes for us as creatures created in the Divine image. At such times it is easy to fall into despair and see ourselves as without merit, or little more than dust and ashes.

 At such time it is good to remember that our tradition teaches us that this world is no accident and that our lives are not accidents either. They can have purpose and meaning!

 We celebrate Rosh Hashanah as the anniversary of the creation of the world. The world was created for us human beings to use our talents to make the world a better place. Few of us will find the cure for cancer or bring about world peace, but that should not stop each of us from dong something. We each can teach a child to read, help an elderly person cross the street, cook and serve a meal at homeless shelter. The possibilities are endless.

 But when we become puffed up in the pride of our accomplishments ore even in our acts of kindness, it is good to remind ourselves that as Abraham realized when he addressed the Almighty (Genesis 18:27) we are ”but dust and ashes.”

 One of life’s must difficult challenges is to find the balance between conceit and despair. Henry David Thoreau reminded us: “We are double-edged blades, and every time we whet our virtue the return stroke straps our vice.”

 I think that it is no accident that, as Bahia ben Asher of Saragossa (13-14th c.) noted the zodiacal symbol for Tishri (next month, the month which begins with Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year) is a balance scale. As we count down the weeks toward Rosh Hashanah, our tradition enjoins us to think of our good and evil deeds as weighing equally on the scale of merit, and that our next act will tip the scale of judgment for good or for ill.

 Think of the power the image can have. If each of us awakens feeling an urgent need to do a good deed, what an amazingly positive impact our collective actions will have on our families, our communities and our world.

 

 

 

 

Arkansas Memories: My Student Pulpit

To this day I remember the excitement that I felt more than 43 years ago when I learned I was “Going to McGehee!”  It was the spring of my third year at HUC, and I was studying in Israel.   I wanted a bi-weekly, preferably in the south because I had never been there. When I learned that I had been matched to become the student rabbi at the Meir Chayim Temple in McGehee in the southwest corner of Arkansas I was overjoyed.

My first trip was a two-week stint for the Holy Days. I flew to Memphis as instructed and then to Little Rock. I picked up my car from THRIFTY Rent-A-Car and drove the hundred miles to Dumas in a huge old green Hudson.  When I pulled up in front of their home, Temple President, Bob Heiman and his wife Hattie, both of very blessed memory, were waiting  outside to greet me.  When I turned off the motor, the car would not stop running for about a minute.  Although I expected the car would explode momentarily, Bob, who had been in the automobile business laughed heartily and said that it was no big deal.

I still remember the title of my first ever Rosh Hashanah sermon:  “I Want to Start All Over!”  For every visit during my two years there, I worked hard to prepare every sermon and every Torah reading, translating as I went along.  To this day, I still love to read from the scroll this way.

That visit marked the first time I was ever on radio with a short program each weekday during the days between the Holy Days.  I remember the announcer saying: “We present Rabbi Stephen Fuchs who is conducting Holy Week services at the My-er Ki-em Temple in McGehee.”  “Rabbi Stephen Fuchs!” I loved the sound, but I was shocked when I heard the name of the synagogue pronounced that way. Little did I realize that the members pronounced it that way too!  I did ask the announcer to change “Holy Week services” to Services for the Days of Awe,” and he graciously did.

On my next visit THRIFTY replaced the vintage Hudson with a brand new, fire engine red Ford Torino–which broke down as I was driving back to Little Rock, right in front of the State prison in Cummins!  Every hundred yards there were warning signs, saying, “Prison area.  Do not stop!”  I still think of it as a miracle that somebody did stop, jumped the battery, and that I made it to Little Rock just in time to catch my plane.

When in the spring Bob told me that the temple would love for me to return for a second year, I felt it was a great honor.

My second year included my first Confirmation Class. During the Confirmation service each of my four students read from the Torah scroll and offered commentary on the portion that he or she had chosen.  It was quite a feat because none had had any formal Hebrew training at the time.  I still remember it as a beautiful and meaningful service.

When I entered HUC it was my desire from the very beginning to be a congregational rabbi.  Therefore I considered my bi-weekly pulpit to be by far my most important “class.”  I looked forward to each visit with great enthusiasm.  I shall never forget the warmth and hospitality of the members who opened their homes and hearts to me.

When it appeared in 2009 that the congregation was ready to close, I offered at my expense to take a Shabbat off from my congregation in West Hartford to visit and conduct a Shabbat service.  It was a great thrill for me to be back.

I am so glad that I made that trip, and it seemed to mean a great deal to the congregation as well. The congregation Continue to struggle, but time and changing demographics forced its ultimate closure in June 2016

As I look back over my career in Columbia, MD, Nashville, TN, West Hartford, CT, and as President of the World Union for Progressive Judaism, I feel very blessed that I felt the warm embrace of some of the nicest people anywhere in SE Arkansas.  They taught me so much about being a rabbi, and I consider it a great blessing that I was privileged to serve the Meir Chayim Temple in McGehee!

 

Rabbi Stephen Fuchs

http://deshacountyhistorical.org  Meir Chayim Temple, McGehee, AR