c. 2008 Religion News Service
(UNDATED) It is once again the season of the biblically ordained Jewish High Holidays when Jews attend synagogue services in large numbers and absent themselves from work and school.
Rosh Hashanah (the New Year) begins at sundown on Sept. 29 and ends 48 hours later; Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement) starts on Oct. 8 and concludes the following evening.
On Rosh Hashanah, worshippers hear the piercing sound of the shofar, or ram’s horn, the call for personal introspection. Apples and honey are featured as symbols of hope for a sweet new year.
Yom Kippur is a day of fasting for adults, except for those ill or pregnant. No food or liquids are consumed for about 26 hours. The object is to strip away our carefully constructed veneer of compliancy. Fasting makes a person more receptive to the themes of self-examination, repentance and atonement.
It’s hard to be honest with ourselves when we have full stomachs and no pangs of hunger and thirst.
As a youngster, I never looked forward to these holidays because they represented the end of a carefree summer and a return to school.
In addition, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur meant attending lengthy worship services featuring mind-numbing sermons dealing with arcane subjects (at least to a young boy) like change, sin and repentance. Not the usual themes for someone who devoted more energy to memorizing the batting averages of the pathetic Washington Senators baseball team than the High Holiday prayers.
In those halcyon years, my tape of life ran at ultra slow speed because I envisioned an almost infinite number of years ahead of me. What was the arrival of one more season of the High Holidays? There surely would be plenty more in my unlimited future.
But now that same tape is running on fast forward. The signs of that speed are everywhere. My financial adviser uses a euphemism, but I am not fooled: “You have a somewhat shorter horizon line than in the past.”
My 8-year-old granddaughter, alas, frequently asks: “Grandpa Jim, what was life like back then, long ago?” By the tone of her inquiry, I’m sure she expects a vivid description of studying by candlelight, writing with quill pens and using horses as basic transportation.
At a recent conference, I mentioned the “post-war” period. I meant the years following the end of World War II; a young person in the audience said: “That period won’t begin until our troops come home from Iraq.”
With all that in mind, these days I eagerly look forward to the annual services of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, two of the world’s oldest continuously celebrated holidays.
Because I now know the liturgy and music so well, I sit in the synagogue, letting my mind conjure up past High Holidays, and the family members and friends with whom I shared those precious days.
The unique haunting melodies of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur _ heard in synagogues only at this season _ trigger deep emotional responses within me. The fasting on Yom Kippur, once so easy in years past, is now harder each year. I detect more stomach growls of hunger, caffeine withdrawal anxiety, and a light headedness as the Day of Atonement nears its climatic end.
Unlike some pundits of this current election cycle, I do not get chills listening to presidential candidates. But every year I do get goose bumps when I recite one brief ancient prayer: “Renew our life and spirit as they were in days gone by.”
The prayer does not call for an impossible physical return to the more vigorous days of our youth. The rabbinic authors of the High Holiday liturgy knew that is impossible. The prayer, however, does ask for renewing our childlike happiness in being alive, restoring the sense of unlimited possibilities, reviving an exciting imagination and inquiring mind, and rekindling the sense of joy when we awaken each morning.
That is a lot to ask of two ancient holidays. But thanks to the extraordinary power of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, I still experience the precious miracle of renewal.
(Rabbi Rudin, the American Jewish Committee’s senior interreligious adviser, is the author of “The Baptizing of America: The Religious Right’s Plans for the Rest of Us.”)
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