By: Meira Weber
The first month of the Jewish year is always an exciting one. Rosh Hashana, the Jewish new year, catapults us right into a festive celebration of this year’s potential – we say special prayers, we blow the shofar, and we eat special foods that symbolize the blessings we hope to benefit from and bring with us into the new year. It’s an interesting foil to Yom Kippur, the final Day of Judgement, the most sobering day of the year.
Yom Kippur, in stark contrast to Rosh Hashana, is solemn and self-reflective. It is the last day where God’s metaphorical “Book of Life” remains open, and through prayer, Jews believe that we can “convince” Him to inscribe us once more in the Book, granting us yet another year of life. The day is weighty and grave. Our lives are literally in God’s hands.
It is for that reason that we fast for the entirety of the day, from sundown to sundown, twenty-five hours. We do not wear leather shoes or cosmetics, and we abstain from spousal intimacy. Separation is key here; we aim to separate ourselves from the material world, if just for one day, and yearn upwards towards the spiritual, demonstrating our ache for spiritual closeness by temporarily forsaking the physical. In fact, many Jews even have the custom to wear white on the eve of Yom Kippur, the pure color that we believe the angels, the beings closest to God, wear.
But it always struck me as strange that Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur are the first Holy Days of the year. Having the Days of Judgment cap off the previous year made more sense to me, like a summary of our past deeds. After all, isn’t a trial held after the act has been done? It used to nag at me, this strange order of events, and after a few years of dwelling on this same question every Yom Kippur, I brought the topic up to my father. His answer to me was fascinating, and it’s the answer that continues to carry me through the High Holy Days year after year. I would like to share this inspiring idea with you today.
A person would naturally assume that the climax of a Holy Day would be the end, when a congregation is concluding the prayer services, voices raised in song and bodies flush with the energy of a day well-prayed. There is a feeling of success – we’ve made it – but also a natural feeling of connection to God, because, after all, the congregation has just spent an entire day strengthening that connection. We have built ourselves up, and that is when you would think that we would be at our holiest, our strongest, and our most connected to God.
If that were the case, then yes, it would make sense to have Rosh Hashana at the end of the year, when we are at the year’s zenith of holiness and connection. But it’s not. Why?
Because holiness is measured not by where we have been; it’s measured by where we are headed. To God, our potential matters far more than what we have already accomplished. Yes, we have prayed all day today, and that makes us feel good, but what God is watching for is what we will do with our tomorrows. Will we continue down the path of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur’s positive resolutions, or will we get lazy and let our plans fall to the wayside? Will we ride out the year on fumes, or will we put in the work to connect daily to God and our spirituality?
The path to holiness does not go backwards, only forwards.
We are at our holiest at the beginning of the Holy Day, the beginning of the year, when we have just settled into the synagogue and opened our prayer books, when we are looking ahead to a day – and hopefully a year – full of prayer and reflection and connection. We are at our holiest at the beginning of the year, the first day of 365 days of opportunity, the starting line of the race to connect to God. It is beginnings, not endings, which hold the weight of that holiness.
And that’s why Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, our Days of Judgement, are the first Holy Days of the year. We aim to set the pace of the coming year and throw ourselves into positive habits. We open our prayer books, and along with them we open our minds, our lips, and our souls to God. We throw ourselves down the path towards righteousness, determined to work towards and hold onto that elusive holiness, determined to re-forge our relationship with God. With God’s help, we will be successful.
May be all be inscribed in the Book of Life, and may we enjoy a year of renewed holiness! Shana Tova!