As the leaves on the trees begin to turn, local Jews, as well as Jews all over the world begin the process of t’shuvah, a Hebrew word meaning repentance which comes from the root “to turn or return.” For them, autumn ushers in the High Holy Days, during which they turn their attention away from the distractions of everyday life and toward God, away from outward denial of wrongdoing and toward acknowledgement of sins, away from unwanted behavior and toward repentance. At this time of year, change is in the air for Jews all around the world.
The High Holy Days include both Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, and Yom Kippur, the Day of Repentance. Thus, this period marks the joyous beginning of a new year as well as a somber period of introspection. However, preparations for the “Days of Awe” the period between Rosh Hashanah and the end of Yom Kippur, begin on September 8 with the observance of Selichot, a late evening or nighttime service involving the recitation of penitential prayers. Many Jews take time both with their community and on their own to begin the process of evaluating their own behavior over the past year on this night, and then continue doing so until the last sound of the shofar, the rams horn traditionally blown on this holiday, at sundown on Yom Kippur.
Although some Jews observe Selichot for a full month prior to Rosh Hashanah, others begin their observance approximately a week before the start of this holiday. In either case, this religious observance might be likened to a “warm up” for the High Holidays, my old Rabbi Steven Bob of Congregation Etz Chaim in Lombard, once told me. “Before you go running, you want to stretch a little bit. This is spiritual stretching. The Selichot service introduces the theme and melodies of the High Holy Days while also stressing God’s royalty and our modest position. We recognize that God is judging us, but we don’t want justice, we want mercy,” said Bob.
Selichot marks the first time during the High Holidays that Jews hear the shofar blown. Much symbolism surrounds the blowing of the shofar, but it is most commonly seen as a wake-up call. Likened to an alarm clock, the shofar says, “Wake up and take a look at the way you’ve been living, and do something about it.” Blowing the shofar on Rosh Hashanah represents a call to return to God. During the year, we tend to stray from the path or get distracted, and we have to come back, turn towards God once again.
At the conclusion of the Selichot service, Jews have a week to begin their self-assessment before Rosh Hashanah. Although this holiday is a joyous one, it does mark the beginning of 10 days of introspection and repentance. On Rosh Hashanah the liturgy speaks of people “being written in the Book of Life.” If they sincerely repent for sins and rectify wrongs from the last year, on Yom Kippur their names are “sealed” in the Book. If they do not, their names are erased. While this language can be seen as a liturgical poetic image, it serves to remind Jews that what we do counts whether it is well known or whether it is secret. With our deeds, we write on the pages of our own Book of Life.
The Book of Life also provides a beautiful metaphor that reminds us we are fragile and don’t know whether we will survive the year or not. Should we not survive, it seems a good idea to atone before meeting God and facing whatever fate lies before us.
The stress on being written in the Book of Life also allows Jews to think about the fact that our fate is not sealed forever, that we have an active role in what the future may bring us. Judaism has a doctrine of fee will; thus, we not pawns that play out Divine Will. The Yom Kippur liturgy stresses this fact, repeating over and over again that repentance, prayer and just actions can avert the severity of the decree.
We don’t often think of change as easy. It seems easier to stay the way we are and where we are. Yet, change is inevitable and often forced upon us. At this time of year, the Jewish tradition doesn’t force us to change but asks us to change. We are reminded of the necessity of change change for the better.
We can see this as an obligation. We can see it as an opportunity.
Either way, the Jewish New Year offers us a chance for some of us a second chance in addition to the secular New Year to look at ourselves, our relationships and our lives and to set new goals, to create new priorities and to make amends for the wrongs we might have consciously or unconsciously, purposefully or accidentally committed over the past 12 months. This, too, can be difficult to honestly look at ourselves and our deeds. If we are willing to do the work, however, the period from Selichot to Yom Kippur provides a chance for t’shuvah, to turn towards what we want in our selves, in our lives and in the world, to return to our best selves. It’s a time to write our life for the coming year, to envision the year as we would like it to be and ourselves as we would like to become. And then when we hear the shofar blown in those last moments of Yom Kippur, we know that change has descended upon us. Or, more accurately, we have brought change upon ourselves