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On October 3 we had a nearly full classroom to discuss the High Holy Day Cycle. We looked at it as an arc, beginning on the first of Elul, peaking on Yom Kippur, and concluding with the return to the beginning of the Torah at Simchat Torah. [Note: Instead of translating every term again and again, I will put a link to an entry in the Jewish Virtual Library or another reliable source. Click on the links to learn more about those words and the concepts behind them.]
The great arc of the High Holy Days begins with a private month of inward evaluation (Elul). We may hear the shofar at weekday services, an ancient, raw sound to “wake us up.” We examine our lives, and our deeds, to see where we have fallen short or missed the mark in our dealings with God and our fellow human beings. We begin the process of approaching those we have harmed to ask for forgiveness; we also open our hearts to forgive those who approach us.
Near the end of Elul, on a Saturday evening, we offer Selichot, prayers asking God for forgiveness of our sins. At that point the music in the synagogue changes, the color of the Torah mantles changes, and we hear more about sin [chet] and repentance [teshuvah] in the service.
The first of Tishri is Rosh HaShanah, the day that the Jewish Year changes: last week, from 5771 to 5772. It is a happy day, when we eat apples and honey in hopes of a sweet year ahead, but the emphasis on teshuvah [repentance] continues: the words of the service speak of God as Avinu Malkeinu [Our Father, Our Ruler] and as our Judge. While we ask for the year to be a good year, we also ask God to forgive our shortcomings. What began in Elul as a private self-examination becomes a communal project. and the intensity builds. The service includes repeated blasts from the shofar; hearing the shofar is the primary mitzvah [sacred duty] of the day.
Rosh HaShanah begins the Yamim Noraim, the Days of Awe, the first ten days of Tishri. We continue to reflect on our lives, individually and communally, as Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement approaches on 10 Tishri. On Yom Kippur, beginning at sundown, we refrain from eating, drinking, and sexual activity; many Jews refrain from bathing, anointing (using cosmetics), and wearing leather shoes. Children and those with special needs such as diabetes or pregnancy modify as necessary for health. The idea is to strip away all earthly pleasures and distractions, as well as to put us into a position to have compassion for those who are forced to fast by poverty and deprivation. It’s a long, long day, and throughout it we speak of the gates of prayer, and the gates of repentance, metaphors that remind us that we do not have forever to do the work of repentance. We do not know how long our lives will be: it is important to get on with the business of atonement. Yom Kippur includes a memorial service, Yizkor, and it closes with Neilah, a powerful culmination to the day.
After sunset, after we have something to eat and drink, we have a few days to prepare for the next phase of the cycle: we build a sukkah in preparation for the seven-day festival of Sukkot. After all the inward-looking and intensity, it is wonderful to relax in the sukkah while we enjoy our newly-repaired relationships. The mitzvot of Sukkot include eating in the sukkah and waving the lulav, a bouquet of palm, willow, myrtle, and an etrog [citron]. Sukkot begins on 15 Tishri, the full moon, and continues for seven days of celebration.
The eighth day (22 Tishri) is called Shimini Atzeret. It is not part of Sukkot, but an additional day. It may be seen as an extra day of celebration (“the party was so great, we didn’t want it to end”) or as a quiet day to settle back down towards normal life (“the party was so great, it took a day to recover.”) And then the cycle closes with one final celebration, one final act of return: we celebrate the turning of the Torah, reading the end of Deuteronomy and the beginning of Genesis, then dancing with the Torah Scrolls, on Simchat Torah [“Joy of the Torah”] With that final act of turning, we resume our normal lives, renewed, refreshed, and ready to live our Jewish lives.
In our next class meeting on October 16 we will take a look at the second great cycle in the Jewish Year: the Passover-Shavuot Cycle. Until then, I wish you a meaningful fast and a joyful beginning to Sukkot! Shanah tovah!
— Rabbi Adar