Days of Reflection, Days of Awe

September 2023/Tishrei 5784

Wendy Stiver, Postulant Of St. Hildegard Community

Early autumn is a time of changes: the days grow shorter, the leaves begin to turn, school activities ramp up. It is also a time of harvesting, a time of reflecting on what has been, and thinking about what may come with the winter. For Jews, this is the Days of Awe: the High Holy Days of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Beginning with the month of Elul on the Hebrew calendar, each person spends time in prayer, self-examination, and self-reflection which culminate with the Day of Atonement or Yom Kippur.

Rosh Hashanah celebrates the anniversary of the creation of the world, and is the Jewish New Year– we have now entered the year 5784.. Spiritually it means that we can start anew, we can make choices about what we carry forward into the new year. It is a time of inner renewal and divine atonement. This is also a time for wonderful foods including apples and honey, tzimmes, brisket, and other traditional dishes reflecting the rich cultural experiences of the Jewish people. It is also a time to attend High Holy Days services in the synagogue or shul. The shofar, made from a ram’s horn, is blown to awaken all who hear it, and to call us to return. Tshuvah (return) is one of the key themes of the High Holy Days: return to God, return to our souls, return to our best selves. We sing the “Hashiveinu”– Hashiveinu, Adonai, eilecha v’nashvah; chadeshh yameinu k’kedem.

Those of us in St. Hildegard’s Community are familiar with the English translation of the Hashiveinu: 

Return again, return again, return to the land of your soul.

Return to who you are, return to what you are, return to where you are

Born and reborn again.

(Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach)

The second theme of the High Holy Days is cheshbon hanefesh (accounting of the soul). In the words of Rabbi Richard S. Sarason, “we are challenged to reevaluate our lives in the light of what really matters: our ultimate values, our relationships to other and to God (however we understand the Divine), and our own limitations of both time and ability….We must acknowledge our imperfections, all the while striving to transcend them” (Sarason, p. xx).

We know that we have transgressed, done harm to ourselves and to others, and to our planet. We know that God has seen our best and seen our worst, and now God hears our prayers during these Days of Awe and chooses whether to ascend the holy throne of judgment or the throne of mercy. Tradition teaches us that God will look upon us with compassion if we do the work of the High Holy Days: the honest introspection we need to conduct, the apologies we need to make, the forgiveness we need to grant, the prayers we need to pray both as individuals and as Jews in community, the fasting and the chanting…the soul-stirring sounds of the shofar and the Kol Nidre. 

We are called to return, and to atone for what we have said or done that has caused brokenness and pain. We are called to remember who we are, WHOSE we are, and how God calls us to partner with the Divine in the work of tikkun olam – the repairing of the world.

As the Book of Life is closed and sealed-

Open our hearts, open our hands.

Let those who asked forgiveness and those who gave forgiveness

depart this place in peace…

Together let us build a community of commitment.

Let us be sealed this day-

sealed for goodness and sealed for life

sealed in the Book of Life and Good…

Be sealed for a year of Torah and soulful searching.

Be sealed for a year of kindness, good deeds, and love.

As the Book of Life is closed and sealed-

open our hands, open our hearts.

Mishkan Hanefesh: Machzor for the Days of Awe. Yom Kippur. 

CCAR Press, 2015/5776, p. 665.