Preparing oneself for the High Holidays means more than cleaning the house and raiding the kosher aisle at the local grocery store. To find out what Jews can do to prepare themselves spiritually and emotionally for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur we asked Connecticut rabbis. Here is what several had to say:
By Rabbi Debra Cantor
My love for Judaism was shaped by a book. When I was a small girl, my mother (of blessed memory) would begin her preparations for each Jewish holiday by sitting down with me to read a chapter from Sadie Rose Weilerstein’s “What the Moon Brought.” Each month, the twins, Ruthy and Debbie (who shared my name!), would look eagerly up at the sky in anticipation of the next Jewish holiday.
As an adult, I find that I also scan the evening sky in search of the moon. Especially during Elul, the month preceding Rosh Hashanah. That first bright sliver in the dark fills me with a mixture of regret and excitement. The Elul moon usually arrives in late summer. Its appearance signals that soon, very soon, summer will give way to a more serious season; that we had better get ourselves and our souls in gear for the new year.
There’s outer work to be done: cleaning the house, calling friends, ordering a brisket. And, especially for rabbis and synagogue leaders, there are meetings – endless meetings! – and lots of organizing and sprucing-up chores. It’s easy to let the inner work, the important stuff, get lost in the shuffle.
I begin by doing what I learned from my mother. I get out my books and make some time to read them. Classics like Agnon’s anthology “Days of Awe” and Maimonides’ “Hilchot Teshuvah” (Laws of Repentance) and favorites such as Rabbi Alan Lew’s beautiful book, “This Is Real and You Are Completely Unprepared: The Days of Awe as a Journey of Transformation.” Actually anything by Alan, my wonderful rabbinical school classmate who died too young, is inspiring. And then I study the mahzor, the High Holiday prayer book, and explore themes that pull at my heart: compassion, forgiveness, memory, longing for God’s Presence. Every year, different prayers leap out at me: Psalm 27, Sh’ma Kolenu, Unetaneh Tokef.
Amazon loves me at this time of the year! I order lots of new books to help in my personal preparation… and of course, to help spark sermon ideas! Here’s the truth: you can’t write compellingly if you’re not passionate about the idea or the text. I’m looking for what engages and moves me, and then have to trust that I can convey some of that feeling to the congregation.
I’m also on the lookout for teaching topics (on the second day of Rosh Hashanah at B’nai Tikvoh-Sholom (BTS), we hold a Community Text Study, free and open to all.) I scour the Internet for poems, readings, articles, meditations. Some of these will even make their way into our High Holiday services. (Check out www.tobendlight.com, www.jewelsofelul.com, www.myjewishlearning.org)
It’s essential to set aside quiet time to pray, to meditate, to reflect. Some people find that it’s helpful to write about their goals for the new year. (Go to www.doyou10q.com ) Others need to walk, to be out in natural surroundings.
Scientists tell us that in order to change our brains, we need to act. So I ask forgiveness. Try to make amends. Reconnect. Do an extra mitzvah. Or two.
Wake up! In Elul, we consider where we’ve fallen short and reconsider a new direction for our lives. The shofar is a tool for that. Don’t wait for Rosh Hashanah! Go out and buy a shofar and blow tekiah all month.
Music helps: I play CDs that put me in a contemplative mood; Barbra Streisand singing Kol Nidrei, melodies both poignant and festive (I love BJ Tekiyah: High Holy Days.) And I keep looking up at the moon. When you read this, the moon will be full. As it wanes…may we grow!
Rabbi Marcelo Kormis
Congregation Beth El, Fairfield
Rosh Hashana Why Yom Teruah? Every morning, during the month of Elul, we have heard the sound of the Shofar, a deep sound that awakens our souls and our lives to teshuvah (repentance). According to our tradition, Rosh Hashanah has four different names: Rosh Hashanah, Yom HaDin, Yom HaZikaron and Yom Teruah. When one reviews these names, it calls attention that this festival is called in the Torah Yom Teruah and not Yom Tekia. The Tekia is a long and penetrating sound – the logical thing would have been that Rosh Hashanah bear this name. So, why is this day called Yom Teruah? Before answering this question let us briefly review the three sounds of the Shofar. Tekia is a long and penetrating sound like a cry from the heart. Shevarim are three sounds, like a sigh. And finally the Teruah is nine fractioned sounds similar to crying. Tekia represents completeness; it’s a unique sound, while Truah represents fragments, different parts of a whole.
On Rosh Hashanah we come to connect the shattered pieces of our lives and of our year. In these days perhaps, our life is more like a Truah than a Tekia. The Maggid of Mezritsh, a great Chassidic master of the 18th century, taught that “ein davar yoter shalem mi lev shavur” – nothing is more complete than a broken heart. Now we may understand why Rosh Hashanah is called Yom Teruah.
During these days of Elul and the High Holidays, we try to unite our life experiences into a coherent whole. We do not need to be afraid to present ourselves in front of God as we are, with our successes and mistakes. Only in that way could we properly evaluate our lives and genuinely project ourselves into the coming year.
Rabbi Vicki L. Axe
Congregation Shir Ami, Greenwich
I forgive you.” Three of the most powerful words in the English language. And three of the most difficult to utter. The sacred command to seek forgiveness and to forgive is the ultimate task of the Jewish New Year season. The ten days beginning with Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, and ending with Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, are known as the Ten Days of Repentance, a time of reflection and introspection. With heads bowed in contrition, we gather every year to recite communal and personal litanies of confession and forgiveness. We pray that God, arbiter and judge, will respond to the sincerity and humility of our words with love and compassion.
The Divine injunction to confess our sins is clear, and the holy instruction to atone for our sins is clear. These prayers are recited daily for the month leading up to the New Year and on Yom Kippur we recite these prayers not once, but five times. We ask God for forgiveness, and we ask one another for forgiveness, reciting in unison “For transgressions against God, the Day of Atonement atones, but for transgressions of one human being against another, the Day of Atonement does not atone until they have made peace with one another.”
The text that follows is equally compelling: “I hereby forgive all who have hurt me, all who have wronged me, whether deliberately or inadvertently, whether by word or by deed. May no one be punished on my account.” So it is not enough to confess and repent in our hearts. We are commanded to seek forgiveness from God and from those whom we have hurt or wronged. And we are commanded to grant forgiveness, to forgive those who have hurt us, to forgive ourselves.
We are living in an era of distrust. We profile people on first glance before we ever take the time to find out who they are. I am reminded of the movie Babel. In one film we are witness to a vacationing couple viewed as ugly Americans, peaceful Moroccan shepherds assumed to be terrorists, a hardworking Asian businessman surveyed as an arms dealer, a loving Mexican housekeeper accused of kidnapping the very children she cares for, a deaf teenager struggling with acceptance among her classmates. All are victims of profiling.
We all do it. I was pregnant with my oldest son, Judah, waiting for a subway in New York, alone on the platform, when two black men appeared. I just wanted to disappear as I feared for my life and the life of my unborn son. They started walking towards me and actually came into my space. And when they were almost in my face, they looked me right in the eye and said “So what
do you think it’s gonna be – a boy or a girl?”
I felt immediately relieved and very ashamed. This was in 1978 before we knew the word profiling, but that is exactly what I did. I would love to find those two gentlemen now and seek forgiveness. I guess the best I can do is to forgive myself.
In this angry, unforgiving society, people across political lines are unable to forgive the opposing side for differing points of view. People across cultural lines are unable to forgive each other for differing ways of life. People across lines of ideology are unable to seek reconciliation through diplomacy and dialogue. Forgiveness is a very powerful weapon when it is used as an overture to dialogue to find common ground.
“I forgive you.” Three of the most powerful words in the English language. And three of the most difficult to utter.
PREPARING FOR THE HOLIDAYS: Feeding the Family