Tag Archives: Days of Awe

The High Holy Days for the Rest of Us

Some years ago, a prominent Protestant clergyman offered the suggestion that Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur could very well be adopted as religious occasions for people of all faiths. He was intrigued by the predominance of the theme of universalism in the Days of Awe. Passover, Shavuot, and Sukkot convey their respective messages of human freedom, of man’s duty as a moral being, and of the thanksgiving man owes to God, in the context of the historic vicissitudes and experiences of the ancient Israelites. Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, however, are not related to any particular event in Israel’s past. They are, as Yehezkel Kaufmann characterizes them, “cosmic holidays” linked with the hopes and the destiny of mankind. The liturgy of Rosh Hashanah and Yon Kippur is indeed suffused with the spirit of universalism.

-Max Arzt
“The Liturgy: An Introduction,” p. 13
Justice and Mercy: Commentary on the Liturgy of the New Year and the Day of Atonement

I suppose I’m crazy to post this, since most Christians wouldn’t even begin to “resonate” with the High Holy Days that are rapidly approaching. And yet, as Arzt notes, an anonymous Protestant clergyman of some prominence in a past era undeniably saw a more universal application to God’s judgment and mercy.

Isn’t that because God will indeed judge all the earth? Aren’t we all under His authority. Does He not have the right to elevate or to condemn? Did He not love Jacob, heir to the covenant promises, but hate Esau who was a descendent of Abraham and Isaac but not in line to receive favor as a Patriarch?

And yet at the end of days, God will judge the descendants of Jacob and Esau both.

The persecution to which R. Yehudai Gaon alluded is the injunction issued by Justinian in 553 C.E. against teaching the deuterosis, the oral interpretation of the Torah. Scholars had therefore assumed that when Judaism “went underground,” certain piyyutim replaced the prescribed liturgy and that other piyyutim of a more legalistic content served as a means of circumventing Justinian’s prohibition against teaching the Oral Law.

-ibid, p. 19

burning talmud
Burning volumes of Talmud

While many Christians today boast a love of the Jewish people and the nation of Israel, we still bristle at the thought of the Oral Law, since it has long been a tradition in our own religious stream to love the Bible (and our own traditions) but disdain the traditions of other faiths, particularly Judaism. We may not physically burn volumes of Talmud anymore, but we continue to do so in our minds and hearts.

In America, Jews are free to practice their religious faith which includes Talmud study and worshiping according to the customs, but historically Judaism has survived, in part, by periodically going “underground” or at least maintaining a low profile. Some of the other Judaisms object to the behavior of the Chabad because they can be so “in your face” about being Jewish, and are very definitely “above ground”.

We like to remind people that America is a Christian nation (actually, it isn’t and never has been) but imagine how insecure that could make a Jew feel? Anti-Semitism isn’t extinct in America or any place else, it’s just waiting for the right environment in which to once again flourish.

It is generally agreed among scholars that the synagogue arose during the Babylonian exile and that it co-existed with the Temple in Jerusalem during the period of the Second Temple…

…Thus the Synagogue was well prepared to assume its post-exilic role as the center of Jewish education, worship, and communal welfare. That the people recovered so quickly from the traumatic effects of the destruction of the Temple was due to the fact that for some centuries before 70 C.E., the Synagogue had been a functioning institution with a reasonably well-established liturgy. The Rabbis tell us that God prepares the healing before the hurt (Song of Songs Rabbah, 4:5).

-ibid, “The New Year (Rosh Hashanah),” p. 43

I’ve maintained over the years that it was indeed the synagogue, the liturgy, and the Talmud that preserved the Jewish people in the centuries after the destruction of the Temple and the initiation of the longest exile they would ever endure, particularly after two failed rebellions against the Romans and the non-Jewish disciples of Yeshua (Jesus) betrayal of their Jewish counterparts. Apparently a Gentile sub-population could not be sustained within a Judaism in exile and under siege by the powerful nations around her scattered people.

I recently discovered that a medieval French philosopher and theologian named Peter Abelard was considered the “only pre-Holocaust Christian who related to Jews as to fellow humans.”

Martin Luther
Martin Luther

That’s quite a statement and an indictment against collective Christianity, but it might not be entirely unearned. While I’m not the student of history I wish I were, I do know that as much as modern Christianity depends on the work of the men of the Reformation, its chief architect, Martin Luther, toward the end of his life, was no friend to the Jews.

According to Jewish Virtual Library, an excerpt from Luther’s work “The Jews and Their Lies” states:

What shall we Christians do with this rejected and condemned people, the Jews? Since they live among us, we dare not tolerate their conduct, now that we are aware of their lying and reviling and blaspheming. If we do, we become sharers in their lies, cursing and blasphemy. Thus we cannot extinguish the unquenchable fire of divine wrath, of which the prophets speak, nor can we convert the Jews. With prayer and the fear of God we must practice a sharp mercy to see whether we might save at least a few from the glowing flames. We dare not avenge ourselves. Vengeance a thousand times worse than we could wish them already has them by the throat. I shall give you my sincere advice:

First to set fire to their synagogues or schools and to bury and cover with dirt whatever will not burn, so that no man will ever again see a stone or cinder of them. This is to be done in honor of our Lord and of Christendom, so that God might see that we are Christians, and do not condone or knowingly tolerate such public lying, cursing, and blaspheming of his Son and of his Christians. For whatever we tolerated in the past unknowingly ­ and I myself was unaware of it will be pardoned by God. But if we, now that we are informed, were to protect and shield such a house for the Jews, existing right before our very nose, in which they lie about, blaspheme, curse, vilify, and defame Christ and us (as was heard above), it would be the same as if we were doing all this and even worse ourselves, as we very well know.

If I had lived in those days and had been a devotee of Luther, how could I have possibly imagined that God loved the Jewish people, had plans to restore them to their Land, and was continuing to uphold His covenant relationship with them? How could I even believe the words of Jesus when he said “Salvation comes from the Jews” (John 4:22)?

Rabbi Nachum Braverman writes, “On Rosh Hashana we make an accounting of our year and we pray repeatedly for life. How do we justify another year of life? What did we do with the last year? Has it been a time of growth, of insight and of caring for others? Did we make use of our time, or did we squander it? Has it truly been a year of life, or merely one of mindless activity? This is the time for evaluation and rededication. The Jewish process is called “teshuva,” coming home — recognizing our mistakes between ourselves and God as well as between ourselves and our fellow man and then correcting them.”

-Rabbi Kalman Packouz
from his commentary on Nitzavim (Deuteronomy 29:9-30:20)
Aish.com

This leads us back to the “universalism” of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

Contrary to popular belief, Yom Kippur or the Day of Atonement is not an exceptionally depressing for fearful day for most religious Jews. My wife explained to me one year that it’s actually an opportunity to hit the reset button of our lives, to repair faults and faulty relationships, and to take advantage of an opportunity laid at our feet to become better people and build a better future.

Yom Kippur prayers
Yom Kippur Prayers

While there’s been a great deal of improvement in the relationship between Jews and Christians since the Holocaust, there is still a lot of underlying tension. There’s still a lot of “unexamined baggage” both Jews and Christians are carrying around about each other. To be fair and given recent events, there’s also a lot of baggage I’m carrying around about other Christians that needs to be examined and cleaned up one way or another. I suppose the fact that Rosh Hashanah begins This coming Wednesday the 24th at sundown with Yom Kippur following at sundown on Friday, October 3rd could provide all of us the opportunity to do better and be better than we have been so far.

I know I need something like this. Sure, we can repent and draw nearer to God and to other people any time of year, but when do we have an engraved invitation from God to do so?

I’ve heard D. Thomas Lancaster call Yom Kippur a “dressed rehearsal” for the final judgment. Even if, as a Christian, you feel assured of your salvation, that doesn’t mean you are perfect. I know it doesn’t mean I’m perfect, not even close. Rehearsals are opportunities to practice an important event to make sure you get it right before the real thing happens. That’s a pretty good reason for all faiths, and truth be told, all human beings to observe the universalism of the Days of Awe, for indeed awesome days are coming and when they arrive, if we are not prepared, we never will be.

Christianity still has much to repent for about how we think, feel, and sometimes treat the Jewish people, particularly religious Jews. What have you done that you need to repent of?

May you be inscribed and sealed for a good year.

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The Candles of Rosh Hashanah

Shabbat candlesWhen I got home last night after my meeting with my Pastor, the Shabbos candles were lit. I was pleasantly surprised. For the past week or so, my wife has been at the Chabad helping the Rebbitzen prepare for Rosh Hashanah. My wife didn’t stay for services, which somewhat disappointed me, but the fact that she lit the candles when she got home was heartwarming (and hearth warming).

Unfortunately, there’s a limit to what I can say to her about it without crossing barriers, so I have to keep my feelings to myself (don’t worry, I’m pretty sure she never reads my blog).

As I said, I visited my Pastor last night, basically to discuss Chapter Eight of D. Thomas Lancaster’s book, The Holy Epistle to the Galatians: Sermons on a Messianic Jewish Approach. We actually started on topic but managed to drift into the definition and purpose of “the Church,” the collective body of Jewish and Gentile disciples of Jesus, the Messiah. Pastor’s opinion is that the New Covenant creates an entirely new entity, the church, and that Jews who become part of that New Covenant join a new entity and leave the older covenant, Sinai, behind.

But if newer covenants cancel older ones, then what about Abraham?

What I am saying is this: the Law, which came four hundred and thirty years later, does not invalidate a covenant previously ratified by God, so as to nullify the promise. For if the inheritance is based on law, it is no longer based on a promise; but God has granted it to Abraham by means of a promise.

Galatians 3:17-18 (NASB)

Nope. Newer covenants do not invalidate older ones.

Pastor kept trying to make his point about the New Covenant from Ephesians 2, but we were missing what it says in Jeremiah 31 and Ezekiel 36, which is the only way to understand the Biblical “core” of the New Covenant:

“Behold, days are coming,” declares the Lord, “when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah, not like the covenant which I made with their fathers in the day I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, My covenant which they broke, although I was a husband to them,” declares the Lord. “But this is the covenant which I will make with the house of Israel after those days,” declares the Lord, “I will put My law within them and on their heart I will write it; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people. They will not teach again, each man his neighbor and each man his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they will all know Me, from the least of them to the greatest of them,” declares the Lord, “for I will forgive their iniquity, and their sin I will remember no more.”

Jeremiah 31:31-34 (NASB)

“Therefore say to the house of Israel, ‘Thus says the Lord God, “It is not for your sake, O house of Israel, that I am about to act, but for My holy name, which you have profaned among the nations where you went. I will vindicate the holiness of My great name which has been profaned among the nations, which you have profaned in their midst. Then the nations will know that I am the Lord,” declares the Lord God, “when I prove Myself holy among you in their sight. For I will take you from the nations, gather you from all the lands and bring you into your own land.”

Ezekiel 36:22-24 (NASB)

abraham-covenant-starsI wrote a multi-part series starting here that charted the massively complicated course of the New Covenant in terms of what it does and doesn’t say about Jews and Gentiles. This is a very good example of not being able to adequately “prove” the particulars of the New Covenant using only the Apostolic Scriptures (New Testament, which by the way, does not mean the same thing as “New Covenant”).

First of all, look at the object of the New Covenant. Jeremiah 31:31 says it’s “the house of Israel and the house of Judah,” so basically, the Jewish people. But what is the New Covenant and how does it differ from the old, according to Jeremiah? Verse 33 says “I will put My law within them and on their heart I will write it; and I will be their God and they shall be My people.”

I have no reason to believe that when God says “My law” that He means anything other than Torah. The difference is that instead of the Torah being externally recorded, it will be part of the internal Jewish motivation. Verse 34 says that they (the Jewish people) “will not teach again, each man and his neighbor and each man his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they all will know Me…”

Today, Jewish people, and in fact all of us, “know God” because of the Bible, an external document that gives us the details of God’s holy standards for the Jews and the Gentiles who are called by His Name. True, the Holy Spirit was given to all believers, but we still have our internal, human nature that struggles against both the Spirit and against conforming our lives to Biblical standards. “After those days,” the Messianic Era, those who are part of the New Covenant, Israel and Judah, the Jewish people, and those of us who are grafted into the root through our faith in Messiah, will have that law, as it applies to each of us, written on our hearts, so that it will be “natural” for us to be obedient to God.

What I don’t see is that the content of the law or the differing roles of believing Jews and Gentiles will change in the slightest. It doesn’t say that in the text.

To support this, Ezekiel 36 says that because of God’s great name, which has been profaned among the nations (verse 23), God will renew Israel, so that the nations (the rest of the world) will know that God is God. Verse 24 continues saying God will take the Jewish people from the nations and return them to Israel. This too is part of the New Covenant, the redemption of national Israel.

So what do we know about the New Covenant. God will write His Torah, not on a scroll or on stone tablet, but on the hearts of the Jewish people, so that they will more perfectly obey His Torah. He will also redeem the Jewish people from their long exile and return them to their Land, to Israel. This is the New Covenant.

Quite a shift from what Pastor was talking about.

I’ve already written about how Gentiles become part of the New Covenant through Abraham, so don’t worry…we’re there, too. I tried to pull it all together in a final (or almost final) blog post called Building My Model which I think you’ll find is a pretty good summary of how the whole New Covenant develops.

the-divine-torahEphesians 3 is part of that description, but because my Pastor mentioned Ephesians 2, I’ll include links to my own interpretation of that chapter as well as an illuminating online conversation on Ephesians 2 and why it does not describe the swan song of the Torah. In fact, I recently said that it is impossible for the Jewish people to repent and to be redeemed by God without turning back to God and obedience of His Holy will through Torah observance.

But what does this have to do with Rosh Hashanah?

During the ten days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, religious Jews take the opportunity to hit the reset button on their lives, to take stock of the previous year and to repair any damage they may have done in their relationship with other people and with God. In the long history of enmity between Christianity and Judaism, we in the church have demanded that Jews distance themselves from the Torah (and thus from God) by burning Torah scrolls, volumes of Talmud, numerous synagogues, and sometimes Jewish people.

If the New Covenant includes and intensifies the older covenants rather than replacing them, then we Christians have some “making up” to do with the Jewish people. In our mistaken attempt to reconcile them with Christ by destroying Jewish observance, Jewish lifestyle, and Jewish people, we’ve been opposing rather than obeying God. If we Christians are serious about being part of the New Covenant, then we cannot inhibit the Jewish people from also being included. In fact, if they aren’t included, then we have no direct linkage, since Abraham is the father of all.

Last night, while I was out of the house, my wife lit the candles to commemorate the start of Rosh Hashanah. As a “good Christian husband,” what is my duty to my Jewish wife, given all I’ve just said? Part of my duty is to be delighted that the warmth and glow of the Shabbos candles once again grace the interior of our home.

L’Shana Tova Tikatevu. May you all be inscribed in the Book of Life and enjoy a wonderful new year.

Rosh Hashanah: Playing the Shofar For Our Father

shofar-rosh-hashanahAnd so we plead on Rosh Hashanah, Avinu Malkenu—our Father, our King. We know who You are, behind that stern mask, feigning objective judgment upon Your throne. You are the Ruler of All That Is, but You are also our Father, and a compassionate loving Father at that. Come here with us, hold our hands, see everything from our view down here. Feel our troubles and the pangs of our hearts as only a father can do. And then get involved with Your world and bless us with a sweet and goodly year.

-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
“I Don’t Like Rosh Hashanah”
Chabad.org

A few days ago, while I was doing some reading, I had an idea for a “Rosh Hashanah” themed blog post. But I got busy with other things and now that I have the time to write it, the idea is gone. I searched my various online inspirations in an attempt to recapture what I had previously thought of, but no go.

But yesterday (as I write this) I did read my four-and-a-half year old grandson a book, written by Sonia Levitin called A Sound to Remember. Unfortunately, it was a library book and since it was due, I had to return it, thus I no longer have it with me to quote from.

The book seemed a little long and a little dry for my young grandson but he still cuddled next to me and paid rapt attention as I read the story of a boy, just past Bar Mitzvah age, named Jacov, a child living in a 19th century European village. Jacov was described as a “slow boy” who stuttered and who generally was the joke of both children and adults in his small town. But his ally was his teacher and friend, the Rabbi of the local synagogue.

The story begins several weeks before the start of the High Holidays. At this time, someone is usually selected to blow the shofar at the Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services (custom says that a single individual is chosen for both of these honors). However, instead of the Rabbi choosing one of the elders of the synagogue or another person of esteem, he chose Jacov.

No one could believe it. Everyone tried to talk the Rabbi out of it. But the decision was made.

Jacov was terrified. What if he made a mistake? How much worse would he seem in the eyes of his neighbors than he already was if he made a mess of blowing the Shofar on Rosh Hashanah?

The day came. Jacov’s parents beamed with pride as the young boy, shofar in hand, stood at the bemah ready to participate in the most important part of the service. The Rabbi called for the first blast. Jacov, who had been practicing diligently in preparation for this moment, blew with all his might, but almost no sound came out. The Rabbi called for the next blast. Jacov redoubled his efforts and the sound was a little better, but still hardly above a whisper. Jacov was red with embarrassment and trembling with shame. He just had to get the last call right.

The Rabbi shouted for the last blast but absolutely nothing was heard from the shofar. Jacov, in spite of all his efforts and determination, couldn’t make a sound.

The day was a disaster for both Jacov and everyone in the congregation. Angry faces “greeted” Jacov and his family as they left the synagogue that day. Jacov had no appetite for food and sat on his bed at home as that night’s darkness encroached, almost as dark as his depression at having utterly failed.

As I said, typically the person who blows the shofar at Rosh Hashanah also has the honor at Yom Kippur, but everyone in the village felt certain that the Rabbi would replace Jacov with a much more worthy individual. After all, who could be less worthy than Jacov?

But this was not the Rabbi’s choice. The Rabbi instead, made a secret agreement with Jacov and then took a quick trip to the city, which was unheard of for a Rabbi during the High Holidays.

Yom-Kippur-ShofarOn Yom Kippur, right before the blowing of the shofar, Rabbi made a statement that was the point of Levitin’s book and the text I wish I could quote.

He said that it is true that customarily, the shofar blasts on Rosh Hashanah should be loud and robust, but sometimes this is not what God wants to hear from us. Sometimes it is our whispers, our anguish, our small cries of the soul that honor God more. Who is to say that Jacov’s tiny and silent efforts weren’t as pleasing to God as another’s loud, clear shofar blasts? Rabbi was much more eloquent in his words than I am right now, and all of the people in the synagogue realized that at this time of atonement, they had failed their Rabbi, little Jacov and his family, and God by being so stern and unforgiving. To truly end the commemoration of this most holy day, they all had to seek forgiveness and make amends.

Then Rabbi revealed the reason for his trip and the purchase he made in the city: another shofar.

At the end of the service, both Rabbi and Jacov blew their shofars together, and no one could be certain which one (or was it both) was making the loud, clear sounds to remember.

Rabbi Freeman in his Rosh Hashanah commentary, tells a story of a Jewish farmer who had hired a teacher to live in his home with his family. In exchange for room and board, the teacher was to provide instruction for his children. However, with the approach of Rosh Hashanah, the teacher went into town to stay for the holidays so he could be close to the local synagogue. This left it to the father to “home school” his children for several weeks.

The father, usually such as “softie” with his children, found that he had to be overly firm to keep his children from taking advantage of him while he was teaching them their lessons.

Finally, on only day three of this exercise, one small child broke down in tears. Father may have played a good part as stern teacher, but he was still father at heart. He couldn’t bear to look at one of his smallest children crying. Looking down at the table to conceal his chagrin, he brusquely called the child over.

“Why are you crying?” he asked.

Between his sobs, the child answered, “I want to ask my daddy…”

“Yes?”

“I mean my teacher…”

“Yes?”

“…so I can ask my daddy…”

“Right.”

“…that my daddy should ask the teacher…”

“So what is it?!”

“…that my teacher shouldn’t be so hard with us any more!!”

teaching-childrenThe story of the beginning of the New Year and the Day of Atonement is the story of our Teacher, our Master, and our Father and who we are as His children. Although most Christians probably don’t think there’s much for us to learn, since we accept that Jesus is our final atonement, there is a great deal we should pay attention to.

We are like Jacov, not very “quick on the draw,” so to speak. Earnest but immature. Eager to learn, but stumbling over the details. We know we are criticized and often deserve it, but we also can’t always control our natures and we make a lot of mistakes. If only our stern taskmaster, who asks so very much of us, would also be our loving Father, who can forgive abundantly.

We assume that once forgiven, we can do whatever we want. That we cannot fall from the hands of our loving Father. We often abuse the privilege of being “saved.” But what did Paul say?

What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin so that grace may increase? May it never be! How shall we who died to sin still live in it?

Romans 6:1-2 (NASB)

I recently heard it said that as Christians we should live lives of continual repentance before God. That doesn’t mean we repent once, declare our faith in Jesus as Lord and Savior, and then we’re covered forevermore, regardless of our behavior. It means we must be continually aware of our sins and our failures, continually confess them before the Father, continually regret our willful disobedience, continually make life changes designed to never again commit the sins we have repented of, and relocate our steps so we are walking on the path that God has set before us.

Even if we did that only once a year, say during the High Holidays, it would be a better effort at repentance than many Christians make.

Then, maybe we would appreciate that the harshness of our teacher is only a mask concealing the kindness and forgiveness of our loving Father, who is in Heaven.

If you are still asking yourself what possible relevance can the commemoration of Jewish festivals have for Christians, since this is all commanded in the Law (Torah), consider the following:

Question: Why do the Jewish people needs a covenant/Brit with G-d. Why do we have to be commanded to follow his Mitzvos? Why is the commitment necessary? Please let me know if you have any suggestions on further readings as well.

Answer: The Talmud asks your question, in a way. First, note that the Torah gives commandments to Gentiles as well, so evidently it is the Torah view that all humans need these. In fact, Adam, the first man, was commanded.

-from “Ask the Rabbi”
“Commandments and Covenants”
JewishAnswers.com

Without the basis of Torah, we Christians have no moral or ethical elements in our lives. This is no directive for Christians to behave like religious Jewish people, but God’s covenant with Abraham is our linkage to Christian covenant relationship with God. A significant subset of Torah is intended for the people of the nations who are called by His Name. Certainly the commandment to repent is not lost on us…or at least it shouldn’t be.

Wishing you a good and sweet new year.

When Judgment is an Opportunity

Shortly, it will be Rosh Chodesh Elul (August 18th and 19th), the beginning of the Hebrew month of Elul. This means that there is one month and counting to Rosh Hashanah (Sunday evening, September 16th). Many people might ask, “So, what?” or might think, “Thanks for the reminder to buy a brisket!” However, the answer to “So, what?” is that we have one month to prepare for Rosh Hashanah … and Yom Kippur. Why would one want to prepare for Rosh Hashanah? Rosh Hashanah is the Day of Judgment when the Almighty decides “Life or death, sickness or health, poverty or wealth.” Does it make sense to prepare for a day of judgment?

-Rabbi Kalman Packouz
from Shabbat Shalom Weekly for
Re’eh (Deuteronomy 11:26-16:17) 5772
Aish.com

Good question. Actually, for most Christians, the only “Jewish holiday” most of us are aware of is Passover. The rest of the Jewish religious calendar is something of a mystery to us and therefore has no particular impact.

Except for those of us who are married to a Jewish spouse or have some other reason to be aware of the annual “lifecycle” of Jewish religious observance and faith.

Also, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are rather moot to most Christians because we were all “saved” when we became believers and confessed Christ. We were all forgiven of our sins and never once looked back or considered our past sinful lives.

More’s the pity.

But why would I say that? Shouldn’t a Christian celebrate and even revel in the fact that, from God’s point of view, our sins are as far away from us as “the east is from the west?” (Psalm 103:12)

Yes and no.

Please don’t get me wrong. Salvation from our former lives as slaves to our own personal wants and desires and reveling in our isolation from God is a tremendous thing and the cornerstone upon which our faith is built. But I sometimes think we Christians gain a little too much mileage from our salvation. I think the result is that we think too little of our sins, at least some of us, and don’t consider that even though we are disciples of Christ and sons and daughters of the Most High God, we’re not perfect.

Far from it.

What shall we conclude then? Do we have any advantage? Not at all! For we have already made the charge that Jews and Gentiles alike are all under the power of sin. As it is written:

“There is no one righteous, not even one; there is no one who understands; there is no one who seeks God. All have turned away, they have together become worthless; there is no one who does good, not even one.” –Romans 3:9-12 (ESV)

OK, so we’re saved but not perfect. We have no righteousness of our own and we depend on the righteousness of Jesus in order to be reconciled with God. But what does that have to do with Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur?

The Jewish religious calendar is replete with times of preparation. Jews prepare themselves for their formal meeting times with God. Jews prepare for Passover, Shavuot, Sukkot, and of course, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

But Jews formally meet with God every week on Shabbat and twice daily during formal prayer. And Jews prepare for each event, regardless of its scope and frequency.

What do Christians prepare for? The formality and august, immense, majesty of the Days of Awe seem to be without comparison. I’m not even sure if Christians approach Easter with the same solemn effort of preparation and anticipation (but it’s been a long time since I attended a church).

But maybe we should (after all, Easter comes only once a year). Maybe we should do something to remind ourselves of the price that Jesus paid so that the rest of us; the rest of the world could be redeemed. Maybe we should spend some time taking stock of ourselves, making an inventory of our spiritual lives, and determining where we have failed God in the various areas of our walk of faith.

This can include quiet introspection and prayer, but let’s have a look at what else Rabbi Packouz suggests (all this and more is at his Shabbat Shalom Weekly commentary):

  1. Take a spiritual accounting. Each day take at least 5 minutes to review your last year — a) your behavior with family, friends, associates and people you’ve interacted with b) your level of mitzvah observance.
  2. Attend a class or classes at a synagogue, Aish center, a yeshiva on how to prepare. Read articles on Aish.com and listen to world-class speakers on AishAudio.com.
  3. Study the Machzor (Rosh Hashanah prayer book) to know the order of the service and the meaning of the words and prayers. You can buy a copy of the The Rosh Hashanah/Yom Kippur Survival Kit, by Rabbi Shimon Apisdorf (possibly available at your local Jewish bookstore or at Amazon.com — about 26 left).
  4. Make sure that you have given enough tzedakah (charity) and have paid your pledges (One is supposed to give 10% of his net income). It says in the Machzor that three things break an evil decree — Teshuva (repentance), Tefilla (prayer) and Tzedakah (charity). Why not maximize your chance for a good decree?
  5. Think of (at least) one person you have wronged or feel badly towards — and correct the situation.
  6. Make a list of your goals for yourself and your family — what you want to work towards and pray for.
  7. Limit your pleasures — the amount of television, movies, music, food — do something different so that you take this preparation time seriously.
  8. Do an extra act of kindness — who needs your help? To whom can you make a difference?
  9. Read a book on character development — anything written by Rabbi Zelig Pliskin would be great!
  10. Ask a friend to tell you what you need to improve. A real friend will tell you … but in a nice way!

studying-talmudMany of these suggestions probably will seem strange or a poor fit for most Christians. But just look at the level of detail and organization that’s being suggested for Jews as they prepare for the single most holy time in their religious year. Imagine if we in the church were to go through such efforts in order to prepare for our own meeting with God.

I know that Christians and Jews differ on a fundamental level in how we see our service to God. For many Christians, service to God operates in an internal realm and is made up of faith, belief, and prayer. For most religious Jews, although those internal states are present, the main focus is behavioral, not conceptual. Giving to charity in preparation for a meeting with God is totally appropriate. So is taking a religious class, reading an inspirational book, studying relevant sections of the Torah, and reconciling with a friend from whom they have become estranged.

The month of Elul is an opportunity for Jews to review their lives and particularly their failings, and to generate efforts to make amends, to repair relationships, to turn away from sins, and to anticipate the future. In a month, Jews all over the world will approach the throne of God with fear, trembling, and rejoicing. Even on the Day of Judgment; on Yom Kippur, we can learn to dance with God, embracing His Awesome Holiness as both judge and teacher, knowing that we have prepared ourselves for the day of judgment and the day of forgiveness.

Did I say “we?”

The Days of Awe aren’t generally considered appropriate for Christians, but I don’t think it would actually hurt for us to accept Elul as a month of opportunity. Why can’t we use this time to prepare our hearts as well? Couldn’t just spending a little time learning about Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur benefit us? Might we not learn to feel just a tad bit more compassion for Jewish people if we learned how they see the God of Abraham and anticipate the Messiah?

We all fail. We all have shortcomings, even the best of us. We can either let that stand or we can do something about it. We can either maintain a “status quo” relationship with God or we can challenge ourselves to draw closer to Him. But that means we’ll have to go through the humiliating and painful process of making a detailed examination of who we are and what we have done to wrong God and to wrong other human beings. We will have to commit ourselves to fixing those damaged and broken relationships, as long as it is within our power to do so. (Romans 12:18)

The month of Elul is the month of reckoning. In the material world, if a businessman is to conduct his affairs properly and with great profit, he must periodically take an accounting and correct any deficiencies… Likewise in the spiritual avoda of serving G-d. Throughout the year all Israel are occupied with Torah, Mitzvot and (developing and expressing) good traits. The month of Elul is the month of reckoning, when every Jew, each commensurate with his abilities, whether scholar or businessman, must make an accurate accounting in his soul of everything that occurred in the course of the year. Each must know the good qualities in his service of G-d and strengthen them; he must also be aware of the deficiencies in himself and in his service, and correct these. Through this excellent preparation, one merits a good and sweet year, materially and spiritually.

“Today’s Day”
Shabbat, Menachem Av 27, 5703
Compiled by the Lubavitcher Rebbe
Translated by Yitschak Meir Kagan
Chabad.org

Failure is wasted if you return only to the place from where you fell. If your plans fail, think bigger, aim higher.

-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
“Exploiting a Setback”
Based on letters and talks of the Rebbe
Rabbi M. M. Schneerson
Chabad.org

There is no higher goal to aim for than God.

Many Christians believe that devout Jews approach the Days of Awe only with fear of judgment and the almost panicky desire to avoid punishment by “doing things,” to appease an angry God. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Yes, acknowledging failures, confessing sins, and making amends is certainly very humbling and one should not approach an all-powerful God with a casual attitude, but (and my Jewish wife explained this part to me) this is also a wonderful opportunity. This is a wonderful opportunity for Jews to pick up what they’ve put off all year-long, to make their lives and the lives of others better, to improve their relationships, and to almost literally watch God punching the “reset” button on Jewish lives, making everything fresh and new.

While Christians (Jews, too) can do all these things at any time during the year, as human beings we tend to avoid difficult events and tasks. As I said before, the month of Elul is an opportunity to stop being lazy, to get into gear, and to make the effort to be better people that we’ve put off for so long. If this sounds like a terrific opportunity for Jewish people, why shouldn’t a few of us non-Jewish religious people take advantage of it, too?