We are about midway through the Ten Days of Repentance, the Aseret Y’mei T’shuvah – which is a bit weird since, for so many of us, the process of teshuvah (repentance) began way ahead of Rosh Hashanah. For Sephardim and the Mizrachi, it began a full month before 5769. For Ashkenazim, the formal period began 10 days before the new calendar year. Also, it does not end at the close of Yom Kippur, but 11 days later, on Oct. 20, the seventh day of Sukkot, on the day we call Hoshanah Rabbah.
Keeping the Faith
That we are in the midst of the Ten Days of Repentance, of course, suggests to many that these are the only days when penitence is achievable. Teshuvah, however, can be achieved at any time of the day or night on any day of the year. All that is required is a sincere desire to change for the better and expending the effort to make that change happen.
The desire to change, however, does not come easily. It takes a great deal of soul-searching to figure out our flaws and how best to overcome them. That leads to the great secret of the Ten Days of Repentance, from their start on Rosh HaShanah until the end of Yom Kippur: These are not days of great sadness, but of great joy tinged with appropriate moments of solemnity. Fear and trembling are not required for repentance (with all due apologies to the author of the U’netaneh Tokef prayer); only sincerity is needed.
It is hard to know that, however, from another name for this period – the Days of Awe. Calling this period by such an epithet colors our perceptions in a way that is unfortunate. In fact, the “Days of Awe” concept is relatively new to our 4,000-year-old tradition. It most likely was introduced late in the 14th century by Rabbi Jacob ben Moses Moellin of Mainz, known commonly as the Maharil.
A leading light of Ashkenaz who trained the generation of rabbis who came after him (thus influencing Ashkenazic practice for all time to come), the Maharil was merely building on a gloomy tradition that grew out of centuries of persecution and mass murder, which the Ashkenazi authorities saw, in part at least, as God’s punishment of Israel.
(The term “Ashkenaz” originally referred to the Jewish settlements that began to pop up along the banks of the Rhine River 1,100 to 1,200 years ago, encompassing parts of France and Germany. As those Jews began to migrate to other parts of Europe, the term migrated with them, becoming the designation of Jews whose traditions flow from Ashkenaz.)
A number of Ashkenazic traditions evolved from this dark predilection, and viewing these 10 days as Days of Awe fits in with that mindset. It hardly reflects traditional belief, however.
To be sure, the High Holy Days (yet another strange nickname) had their serious side from the earliest period of rabbinic tradition, meaning nearly 2,000 years ago. It is then that we first hear of Rosh HaShanah being Yom Ha’din, the Day of Judgment, or that God listens to our confessions at this time and “writes” His response in a “book of life.”
This anthropomorphic description, however, was not meant to convey the notion that one’s fate is resolved during the first 10 days of Tishrei. Rather, it conveys the notion that God, recognizing that we lead busy lives with countless distractions, carved out a special time for us to concentrate on our inner selves.
This period culminates in a single day, Yom Kippur, in which all such distractions are proscribed, not because we are in mourning or in dread, but to free us from mundane concerns long enough to take stock of our lives.
In other words, rather than being our “last chance” or our “only chance,” this is our best chance for repentance because God gives us the gift of time to think things through.
This is not something to mourn, but to celebrate with joyful song.
Even if the talmudic sages wanted to turn these 10 days into something more solemn and more fear-inducing, as eventually happened, they knew they could not do so. Not only does the Torah not allow for such a view, it probably never even heard of Rosh HaShanah. What we call the “beginning of the year,” after all, the Torah calls “the first day of the seventh month.” It is a sacred day, but there is nothing to suggest that it was meant to be the day it has turned into.
The rest of the Bible confirms this view. The term Rosh HaShanah actually appears once (in Ezekiel 40:1), but it simply means “beginning of the year,” and nothing more.
There are two references to the “first day of the seventh month” in the Bible outside the Torah, one in the Book of Ezra and one in Nechemiah 8:9-12. It is in the latter that we get a glimpse of how the ancients viewed Rosh Hashanah. The day we call Rosh HaShanah, we are told, was meant to be a day of “great rejoicing,” because “the joy of the Lord” is our strength.
Underlying the scene was the notion of repentance. Ezra had just read the Torah to the people in a form they probably never heard before. They feared God’s wrath because they were ignorant of His words and so failed to follow them. Ezra and Nechemiah assured the people that their recognition of this fact and their commitment to change was sufficient to repent and that this was a reason to celebrate, not mourn.
The rabbis, when they finally arrived on the scene several hundred years later, could not ignore this biblical view, and show no signs of wanting to. Although they formalized Rosh HaShanah as the beginning of a 10-day period of reflection, penitence, and prayer, they nevertheless maintained its status as a yom tov, a day of joyous celebration. They did so, as well, for Yom Kippur.
On both days, this status is confirmed, among other ways, by the liturgy, which includes prayers that are only recited on festivals, never on mournful fast days and other such occasions.
There are solemn moments, of course, during this period; that is the nature of t’shuvah. We should not lose sight, however, over this wonderful gift we have been given – a moment of time carved out of an entire year to reflect on who we are, what we do and how we behave, in order to improve ourselves and the world around us.
Because of that gift and what it affords us, from Rosh HaShanah through Yom Kippur, joyousness (not to be confused with the mirthful absurdities and excesses of secular new year celebrations) and inner reflection were supposed to go hand in hand.
Shanah Tovah from my family to yours. May 5769 bring the promised redemption to its joyous conclusion.