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Reflections on Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur
By Deborah Masel
The dread of the Remembrance Day has come… Jewish New Year is not a time for party hats and streamers. On Rosh Hashannah the Books of Life and Death are opened, the Moving Finger writes, and the Jewish people approach their Creator in fear and trembling.
On Judaism’s judgment day God is the father standing over his son, knife in hand. The haunting wail of the ram’s horn evokes the cry of the bereaved mother, wrenched from depths beyond words. Yet according to tradition, on this day God hears the prayers of barren women, and opens that which was closed. On Rosh Hashannah the Matriarchs Sarah and Rachel, and Hannah, the mother of prayer, are said to have conceived.
From the narrow place I called to God, sings the Psalmist; He answered me with expansiveness. The Moving Finger writes, but piety, prayer and tears can move the Immutable God, opening all the gates of heaven, transforming the cry of bereavement into the newborn’s wail. Rosh Hashannah resounds with one hundred blasts of the ram’s horn, compared in the Talmud to the cries of a woman in labor; ninety-nine of her groans despair unto death, while only one calls out for life.
Towards the end of the day, worshippers gather at riverbanks and seashores to invoke divine compassion and cast into the depths the mistakes of the bygone year. They want to wash the world clean, as on the first Rosh Hashannah when God, crowning His handiwork, said “let us make man”.
Invoking ‘us’ on that momentous sixth day of creation, God could be admitting that He can’t do it alone. On Rosh Hashannah, God and man stand in need of each other. Formed from dust and filled with the longing that is God’s breath, the thirsty human reaches up in prayer. God responds with rain that draws life’s abundance from its subterranean limbo.
As partners in the perilous human project, Creator and creation walk the razor’s edge of life and death, each praying for the prayers of the other. Humanity cannot survive the knife of divine judgment, and without human prayer, God is alone and uncrowned in a formless waste. Each must breathe life into the other. God prays, May My mercy suppress My anger; may I stop short of the limit of strict justice.
We pray, Remember us for life, O King who desires life, and inscribe us in the Book of Life!
May the prayers of God and man on this day expand the narrow places and write peace into all hearts, everywhere.
Yom Kippur, the Jewish ‘Day of Atonement’, is not a day of mourning. In fact Judaism’s authoritative and sacred body of teaching, the Talmud, celebrates Yom Kippur as the most joyous day of the entire year.
On this day Moses descended Mt. Sinai with a second set of tablets, and the Jewish people were forgiven the sin of worshiping the golden calf. On this day, Jews throughout the world stand together, barefooted, as their collective act of repentance opens the gates of heaven to flood the world with the light of forgiveness.
The fasting of Yom Kippur is not a punishment or a restriction; it is a liberation from the limitations of this world. For one day we become like angels, relieved of the obligation to eat, drink, or engage in other worldly activities. For one day, through the act of tshuva which is understood as repentance, but literally means “return”, we break through the iron wall that according to the sages hides the gift of heaven from the sight of earth.
Tradition speaks of ‘fifty gates of understanding’, forty-nine of which are opened by intellectual pursuit. A question is asked, a gate swings open, revealing another gate, another question, all the way to the fiftieth gate. But the fiftieth gate, the gate upon which we swing in the fading light of the closing moments of Yom Kippur, cannot be opened by our powers of reasoning. Our intellect is not the key. This is the gate of the question for which there is no human answer. This gate is unlike any other, for it can only be opened from the inside. The fiftieth gate is called the Gate of Experience. To open it, one must already be inside, at the innermost point of the journey from mind to heart.
When the Temple still stood in Jerusalem, in the fading, indeterminate twilight of this annual Sabbath of Sabbaths, the High Priest was permitted to enter the holy of holies, the forbidden inner sanctum, where heaven and earth meet and kiss. Here, where the laws of physics broke down and boundaries collapsed, he spoke the ineffable Name of God, bringing the Day of Atonement to its climax. Outside in the Temple courtyard the children of Israel prostrated themselves, as one person with one heart.
Today, in these last moments of Yom Kippur we gather to recite the Book of Jonah followed by a service called Neila, meaning closing. After a day of openings the gates of heaven are shutting. So why do we feel so high, so expanded? Because, say the mystics, after a day of living like angels, we are no longer shut out. The gates are closing, behind us, and in a world that transcends dichotomies, we hear, as one, the primordial, pre-articulate cry of the ram's horn – the sound of a new beginning. Yom Kippur is a true day of at-one-ment.
from the September 2010 High Holyday Edition of the Jewish Magazine
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