Thursday, September 15, 2011

What I Get Out of the High Holy Days

By Susan Esther Barnes

This post was inspired by a comment by “CA” on a post called Another Aish Video Insults Our Intelligence on Dov Bear’s blog.

CA, like many other people, has some trouble with some of the High Holy Day themes. He compares God during this time to Santa Claus. Presumably, this is because Santa, in theory, gives coal to the bad boys and girls, and only brings good stuff to the good ones. Similarly, Jewish tradition says that the High Holy days is the time when God writes our names in either the Book of Life or the Book of Death for the coming year, and that our actions can influence which book God will choose for us.

“Naughty or Nice,” he says, “you get what's coming to you.” That’s the theory, anyway, but as CA observes, “Unfortunately, this bears no relation to reality…The undeniable fact is that sooner or later the big G-guy is going to write everyone for the book of Death.”

Because of this, as well as long services and “pompous rabbinical sermons,” CA doesn’t like the High Holy Days. “About the only thing I like is the food,” he says. Which strikes me as odd, since Yom Kippur is a day of fasting, but I’m sure he must be talking about the Rosh Hashanah food, and anyway, that’s beside the point.

I really can’t argue with CA when s/he points out that no matter how good we are, we’re all going to die. Not only that, but every year there are people who die even though they seem to be living a reasonably righteous life, and others continue to live even though have done some pretty nasty stuff.

Although the whole Books of Life and Death thing is part of the High Holy Days, it’s only a part. If that part makes you uncomfortable, fine. There is still plenty more to the Days of Awe than that, and the fact that you don’t like one part doesn’t mean you should write off the whole thing.

In fact, the High Holy Days start out with Kol Nidre, which means “All vows.” It starts out with us being forgiven for any vows we made (or are going to make, depending on which interpretation you follow), which we are unable to keep. A holiday that starts out with forgiveness can’t be all that bad, right?

Later, we ask God for forgiveness for a list of stuff we have done wrong and, presumably, we receive God’s forgiveness. That sounds good to me, too.

It’s not all automatic, though. We are reminded that God forgives us for sins against God, but for sins against another person, God forgives us only if we have made peace with that person. I like this part, too. It encourages us to ask for forgiveness from those we have wronged, and to forgive those who have wronged us.

CA says, “I don't see why I need forgiveness from God if I do something wrong, and why I should wait until one time a year. If I hurt someone, I prefer to apologize right away and clear the air quickly.” The good news for CA is, there nothing in the liturgy that says we need to wait. I agree that whenever someone’s feelings are hurt, the best thing is to make peace as soon as possible.

What the High Holy Days provide, however, is an opportunity to reflect on the past year, and to ask ourselves, “Have I made peace with everyone I need to, or do I still have some baggage lying around to which I need to attend?” It also gives us a deadline. The holidays remind us we don’t have forever to make peace. We may die next year, or even sooner. The time to make peace, the holidays remind us, is now.

I also happen to like the High Holy Day music, and I’m lucky enough to be a member of a synagogue in which the sermons are, as a general rule, thoughtful and moving. The services are long, but I’m never bored; in fact, I enjoy them. Plus, I find the long services help to distract me from my hunger during the Yom Kippur fast.

So although I don’t believe who lives and dies in a given year is based on a Divine moral judgment, I find I get a lot out of the High Holy Days every year. I hope that CA, and others of a similar mindset, will put aside the parts s/he doesn’t like, and will instead focus on the parts of the holidays that have the opportunity to provide him/her with a sense of meaning.

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