AS THE DAYS shorten, and the nights become cooler, we wish we could hang on to the warmth of summer just a little longer.
It’s normal to feel a twinge of sadness that another summer has passed.
However, for Jews, it’s when we begin our Days of Awe, and 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. The Hebrew word for sin is chet, an archery term that means to miss the mark. So during these days we look to find ways we have missed the mark in living the holy life God asks of us.
These Days of Awe, which cover 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 around each of these days, it is hard to convey the power they have in Jewish life.
Despite the different focus and rituals of each day, there are two overriding themes throughout all of them, t’shuvah or repentance, and cheshbon hanefesh, the accounting of the soul.
T’shuvah actually means to return, thus we are enjoined to return to the goodness and purity with which our souls were created. There are two kinds of returning, one by changing the way we treat others and the other, in the ways in which we have not followed the path that is expected of us by the Divine.
Jews do not believe in an intermediary to ask for forgiveness, so we cannot ask God to forgive us for any harm we have done to others. We must do that ourselves, approaching those individuals directly and apologizing.
Cheshbon hanafesh, the accounting of our souls, reaches its peak Sunday and Monday throughout the 26 hours of fasting and prayers of Yom Kippur. This is 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, again and again 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.
We recite them as a community, knowing that, though individually we may not have engaged in any particular sin, we support each other throughout the recitations.
As we face our faults throughout this solemn day, we feel an increasing urgency to make amends because we are reminded that the gates of heaven will close by the end of the day. Of course, we know that heaven’s gates never actually close, and that we can repent any time, but the prayers of Yom Kippur help us focus our intensity on our mistakes.
No matter how hard we try, we will invariably miss the mark in some way, but we know we can always make amends, change and return to our better selves. We are not expected to be perfect, but we are a work in progress and 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 Day 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.”
These powerful, joyous, yet solemn days provide us with the chance to start fresh, renew our lives and return to a holy life.
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@example.com.