ISSUES OF FAITH: Days of Awe lead to renewal

AS THE DAYS shorten, and the nights become cooler, we feel a twinge of sadness that another summer is passing, wishing we could hang on just a little longer.

However, for Jews, it’s time to look forward to Yom Noraim, the Days of Awe. While others may be seeing an ending, we are preparing for a fresh start.

Much like the secular new year, we resolve to make changes in our lives and reflect on our actions in the past year, seeking to start anew.

We use the Jewish month of Elul before the High Holy Days for this introspection, turning to our family and friends, seeking forgiveness for any hurt we have caused them and resolving to do better in the coming year.

It helps to understand the Jewish view on sin and forgiveness when observing the customs surrounding these days. In Judaism, there is no concept of original sin. We are born innocent, needing no redemption and the mistakes we make in our lives come from poor choices we have made, not because we are inherently sinful.

The word for sin in Hebrew is chet, which is an archery term meaning “to miss the mark.”

If we’ve simply missed the mark, then we can make amends. If we have wronged someone, it is important to approach them and ask their forgiveness. Jews don’t ask God to forgive us for something we have done to another person, and we do not pray to God to absolve us of our wrongdoings towards others. We must do that hard work ourselves, approaching those individuals directly and apologizing.

These High Holy Days, lasting almost a month, include Rosh HaShanah, the new year, Yom Kippur, the day of atonement, the harvest festival of Sukkot and Simchat Torah, the celebration of the joy of the Torah.

There are so many deeply moving rituals, prayers and customs during this time, it is hard to convey the power in Jewish life that these days have.

There are two overriding themes throughout the Days of Awe — t’shuvah, or repentance, and cheshbon hanefesh, the accounting of the soul.

T’shuvah actually means to return, where we are enjoined to return to the goodness and purity with which our souls were created. We can return by changing the way we treat others, and by changing our behaviors which have not followed the holy path expected of us by God.

Cheshbon hanafesh, the accounting of our souls, reaches its peak throughout the 26 hours of fasting and prayer during Yom Kippur, when we appeal directly to God for forgiveness for having strayed from a holy life.

We repeat the al chet, a confession of 44 sins, over and over throughout the day.

They include deceit, harsh, vulgar and foolish speech, scornfulness, insincerity, immorality, hard-heartedness, gluttony, arrogance, gossip, bribery, extortion, jealousy, stubbornness and baseless hatred.

No matter how hard we try, we will invariably miss the mark in some way, but we understand we can always make amends, change and return to our better selves, knowing that the divine spark within each of us is just waiting to be fanned into a flame of holiness.

Rabbi Karyn Kedar points out that there are many lessons to learn from our mistakes, that we must forgive ourselves and “recognize that all is for a reason and that we did the best we could at the time … Everything I have done and seen has made me who I am in this moment. It’s OK to have been me. I forgive” (God Whispers).

Our High Holy Days prayerbook teaches, “As long as the candle burns, as long as the spark of life still shines, we can mend and heal, seek forgiveness and reconciliation, begin again” (Mishkan HaNefesh).

“As we begin a new year, may we feel each other’s strength and courage, may we feel the earth’s nourishment and love. And may we feel the Mystery reaching out to us, showing us the way” (Rabbi Yael Levi).

These powerful, joyous, yet solemn days provide us with the chance to renew our lives and return to a more holy life. And as we do, our efforts will ripple out, bringing that holiness into our world.

Kein yehi ratzon … may it be God’s will. Shalom.


Issues of Faith is a rotating column by religious leaders on the North Olympic Peninsula. Suzanne DeBey is a lay leader of the Port Angeles Jewish community. Her email is [email protected]

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