Nov 01

“Days of Awe: Looking inward, taking account” by Janet Tatz, Jewish Educator

[note: this article first appeared in the print and online edition of the Helena Independent Record on Saturday, October 15, 2016]

I have just returned home after spending 25 hours in Butte, at the historic B’nai Israel synagogue. I was celebrating Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, the holiest day in the Jewish year. This day is filled with communal prayer, fasting and contemplation.Janet-Tatz-2015

It is a “bookend” to Rosh HaShanah, the Jewish New Year, that preceded Yom Kippur by 10 days. Indeed, the entire month of Elul, which precedes the current month of Tishrei, is a lead-up and preparation for these most holy and soul-searching days.

I have long felt that autumn — with its colorful foliage, dramatic change of weather, back-to-school-agenda and fall harvest — was the perfect time to welcome and acknowledge a New Year. The seasons and our routines are changing. It is a fitting time to look inward and take account of how we have lived our lives, acted in relationship to others and worked toward making the world a better place. It is not enough to just attend synagogue on Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur. Much preparation is in order, and so each day of Elul provides an opportunity to reflect on the year gone by, to give an honest assessment of how we have taken to heart the promises and good intentions that we set forth for ourselves the previous year. It is a tradition to sound the shofar, a ram’s horn, each morning during the month of Elul. For those who adhere to this practice, a wake-up call is clearly heard.

As Laurie Franklin, spiritual leader of Har Shalom (Mountain of Peace) in Missoula recently taught, it is a powerful statement that one of the Jewish morning prayers begins, “My G-d, the soul you have placed in me is pure.” It expresses the belief that we are fundamentally holy. But alas, as the rest of the day unfolds, we make choices that are good or, perhaps, not so good. As days, weeks and months pass, the holy spark within us shines less brightly, dulled by the accumulation of our very human mistakes.

And that is where Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur come in. With great wisdom, Torah and sages of Judaism gave us a path back to our higher selves. That path is called “tshuvah” (CHOO-vah) which means “return.” It is a renewal of spirit, a repairing of relationships between people, G-d and the earth. This isn’t easy. It is difficult to admit we have “missed the mark,” gone astray, not lived up to our highest ideals. It is not easy to say, “I am sorry,” to ask forgiveness and make amends. And, of course, it is not enough to simply apologize for a wrong that needs righting. The true test of one’s sincerity is that, when presented with the same temptation that led us astray in the past, we resist that path. Actions truly speak louder than words.

Rather than confess our transgressions and missteps individually, on Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur, the congregation rises as one to proclaim where we have “missed the mark.” We speak as one voice as we ask forgiveness for such sins as: distorting facts to fit our theories, turning a deaf ear to the cry of the oppressed, using violence to bring about change, appeasing aggressors, indifference, poisoning the air and polluting land and sea. Together, we ask G-d to forgive us, pardon us and grant us atonement.

The list goes on and on and is repeated several times throughout the day: For the sin we have committed against You by malicious gossip, gluttony, narrow-mindedness, hating without cause, fraud and falsehood, arrogance, insolence, hypocrisy, exploiting the weak … You get the idea. In so many ways, try as we might, we have not lived up to our better selves. Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur serve as an annual “reset” to help us try once again to live up to the high ideals and values we hold most dear.

One prayer, that I especially love, and that is recited not only at this most holy time of year, but can be heard in synagogues around the world each week, as we celebrate the Sabbath, a time for setting aside our busy work days and allowing for a time of “being instead of doing” rings true each time I hear the words: Grant us peace, Your most precious gift, and give us the will to proclaim its message to all peoples of the earth. Bless our country, that it may always be a stronghold of peace, and its advocate among the nations. May contentment reign within its borders, health and happiness within its homes. Strengthen the bonds of friendship among the inhabitants of all lands. Teach us to labor for righteousness and inscribe us in the Book of life, blessing and peace.

May it be so.