Tag Archives: Rosh Hashanah

Dark Descent

Dark DescentQuestion:

Everyone else has a great time celebrating their New Year’s Day. Why do we take ours so seriously? What’s this whole judgment deal? Why all the prayers? Can’t we just party?


If you would know the drama that’s going on, you would zip out of the wildest party to be there. Imagine the entire universe in reboot. Imagine a mega-surge of creative energy, enough to power the whole of reality for an entire year. Imagine a system loading parameters for every galaxy, star, planet, organism, cell, protein, molecule and atom over a 48-hour period, and you’re starting to get the idea. And you? You are adjusting the input at every step.

-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
“Why No Wild Party on Rosh Hashanah?”
The High Holidays: Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur

That sounds encouraging but there’s catch. As part of the “reboot” process, we must face our past, confront all of the mistakes and errors we’ve committed over the past twelve months and, to the best of our ability, first make amends with everyone we have injured and only after that has been accomplished, make amends with God. That’s what the month of Elul is all about, and our time is almost gone. Elul ends at sundown on Wednesday, September 28th and Rosh Hashanah begins.

Elul does many things but one of its functions is to act as a gateway into a long descent. The descent is into who we are and how we have performed as servants of the Most High God. You might think of it as your annual review at work, for instance, where your performance, for good or for ill, is examined and the consequences of your behavior are laid out in front of you. This is the preparation for Rosh Hashanah and then, ten days later, Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, the most holy day on the Jewish religious calendar. The day when you make the final descent into your soul, bring before the King all of who you are in humility and prayer, in fasting and repentance, and then rise and prepare for the coming year, dedicated to bringing better “fruits” to the altar of God.

But first things first.

“Rebbe, I am a sinner. I would like to return, to do teshuvah!” Rabbi Israel of Ryzhin looked at the man before him. He did not understand what the man wanted. “So why don’t you do teshuvah?”

“Rebbe, I do not know how!”

R. Israel retorted: “How did you know to sin?”

The remorseful sinner answered simply. “I acted, and then I realized that I had sinned.” “Well,” said the Rebbe, “the same applies to teshuvah, repent and the rest will follow of itself!”

-by J. Immanuel Schochet
“The Dynamics of Teshuvah”
The High Holidays: Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur

Sounds pretty simple, but as I mentioned in yesterday’s blog Failure to Escape, it’s not always easy to play the “get out of jail free” card. I wonder sometimes if it’s always possible.

People who have been abandoned or abused by a parent or spouse sometimes suffer with anxiety about their relationship with God. They might project their hurts and fears from human relationships onto their relationship with God. They fear that He will withdraw His love from them. Such a view of God makes a true faith relationship almost impossible. God wants His people to know that He will not fail us, nor will He abandon us.

The Weekly eDrash
Commentary on Torah Portion Nitzavim
“I Will Never Leave You”
First Fruits of Zion (FFOZ)

There are other reasons besides these that can damage a person’s ability to trust and to form intimate relationships, but the result can certainly be the same. People of faith tend to model their connection with God on their connections with other people. If a person has learned to trust other important relationships, chances are, that person will trust their relationship with God. If, for whatever reason, real or perceived, their trust is stunted and unhealthy, then their ability to trust God will be likewise.

Being able to walk willingly down into the abyss of your sin, your human frailty, and your woeful imperfections is extremely dependent on your ability to trust God to pull you back out again, rather than believing He will leave you to drown hopelessly in the dark.

How did you know how to sin? I just acted and then at some point, realized it was sin. How do I know how to make teshuvah? First, I must go to where my sin lives within me and face its ugliness. I must turn my back on it, as I would turn my back on a dangerous and violent animal. Then I must trust God to rescue me from who I am, who I have become before I’m torn apart, and to pull me back out into the light and into the frail possibility of being someone better than I was in the pit.

That part of Elul, the High Holidays, and Yom Kippur isn’t advertised prominently. I suspect that many people don’t even think about it in those terms. However, when you get to be a certain age, you start to review the past more carefully. You see the annual patterns of life. You see what changes year by year and what does not change. You see in which direction those things that do change travel. Depending on the view, you find reason for encouragement…or not.

DrowningIn Christianity, there isn’t any set of events that directly corresponds with the Jewish High Holidays. Forgiveness of sins is a one-time event. The price was paid with the death of Christ and you accept this “free gift” upon your profession of faith in the Savior and becoming “saved”. Why bother going through the ceremony year after year?

Except you don’t stop sinning after you become a Christian. Sometimes becoming “saved” is just the first step in a long, arduous process of cleaning up your life. Sometimes the process never ends. There are always flaws, always mistakes, always regrets. There is always an abyss into which you must descend if you ever expect to have a hope of being redeemed. Both Christianity and Judaism are very optimistic that you’ll always return unscathed thanks to Jesus (Christianity) or God (Judaism).

But there is always the inmate who chooses to stay in jail. There is always the prince who learns to assimilate into the peasants. There is always the danger of going down and not being able to get back up.

Someone, some circumstance, something will knock you down sooner or later. It always happens. And you get back up. And you get knocked down. And you get back up. And you get knocked down. And you…

As for the wicked man, if he should return from all his sins that he committed and guard all my decrees, and do justice and righteousness, he shall surely live, he shall not die. All his transgressions which he committed will not be remembered against him….Do I then desire the death of the wicked, says G-d, the Eternal G-d, is it not rather his return from his ways, that he may live? –Ezekiel 18:21-23

That’s what’s at stake. Life itself.

Each one of us is both the sun and the moon.

The sun is constant—every day the same fiery ball rises in the sky. But the moon cycles through constant change—one day it is whole, then it wanes until it has disappeared altogether. Yet, then it is renewed, reborn out of nothingness.

-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
Based on letters and talks of the Rebbe, Rabbi M. M. Schneerson
“Sun and Moon”

That’s the problem. God is constant and unchangeable. People are not. Any constancy we may possess for the good must come from God. It is not within us as people to do so.

From Rabbi Schochet again:

“This mitzvah which I command you this day is not beyond your reach nor is it far off…” Generally, this verse refers to the entire Torah. In context with the preceding passage it is also interpreted to refer specifically to the principle of teshuvah. “Even if your outcasts be in the outermost parts of Heaven” and you are under the power of the nations, you can yet return unto G-d and do “according to all that I command you this day.” For teshuvah “is not beyond reach nor is it far off,” but “it is exceedingly near to you, in your mouth and in your heart to do it.”

And yet there are times when the Torah, teshuvah, and trusting in God regardless of the “vicissitudes of life”, seem as if they are beyond imagination, even though they may only be lying barely out of reach.

The road

The road is long and often, we travel in the dark.

The King is in the Field

The fieldsAs the month of “Divine Mercy and Forgiveness,” Elul is a most opportune time for teshuvah (“return” to G-d), prayer, charity, and increased Ahavat Yisrael (love for a fellow Jew) in the quest for self-improvement and coming closer to G-d. Chassidic master Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi likens the month of Elul to a time when “the king is in the field” and, in contrast to when he is in the royal palace, “everyone who so desires is permitted to meet him, and he receives them all with a cheerful countenance and shows a smiling face to them all.”

Elul Observances in a Nutshell

Antignos of Socho received the tradition from Shimon the Righteous. He would say: Do not be as slaves, who serve their master for the sake of reward. Rather, be as slaves who serve their master not for the sake of reward. And the fear of Heaven should be upon you. Pirkei Avot 1:3

My wife refers to the month of Elul and the High Holidays as an opportunity to “hit the reset button”. So many undesirable things seem to pile up in our lives over a twelve month period that Elul is a good opportunity to make a serious evaluation of who we are, what we’ve been doing, and if we have been behaving as the sort of person we are, or want to be.

I find it interesting that during Elul, Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi considers the King to be walking among His subjects. It reminds me of another King under somewhat similar circumstances:

“I dare say you love him not so ill, to wish him here
alone, howsoever you speak this to feel other men’s
minds: methinks I could not die any where so
contented as in the king’s company; his cause being
just and his quarrel honourable.”

-Henry V – Act 4, Scene 1
by William Shakespeare

While our King is readily apparent to us, like the case of King Henry, this was not always so. Shakespeare’s Henry disguised himself as a commoner and walked among this troops on the eve of battle, encouraging them. For many people today, our own King is among us but walks “anonymously”. He is not recognized in his “disguise” and he is seen instead to be a false Messiah, a false Prophet, and even a fictional character in a book of myths. Among the Jews, even today, we can think of him like Joseph, who in the guise of the Egyptian viceroy Zaphenath-Paneah was not recognized by his own brothers until such a time as when Joseph chose to reveal himself:

Then Joseph could no longer control himself before all his attendants, and he cried out, “Have everyone leave my presence!” So there was no one with Joseph when he made himself known to his brothers. And he wept so loudly that the Egyptians heard him, and Pharaoh’s household heard about it. Joseph said to his brothers, “I am Joseph! Is my father still living?” But his brothers were not able to answer him, because they were terrified at his presence. –Genesis 45:1-3

Yet there will be a time when the King will return in power and all will know his name:

I saw heaven standing open and there before me was a white horse, whose rider is called Faithful and True. With justice he judges and wages war. His eyes are like blazing fire, and on his head are many crowns. He has a name written on him that no one knows but he himself. He is dressed in a robe dipped in blood, and his name is the Word of God. The armies of heaven were following him, riding on white horses and dressed in fine linen, white and clean. Coming out of his mouth is a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations. “He will rule them with an iron scepter.” He treads the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God Almighty. On his robe and on his thigh he has this name written: King of King and Lord of Lords. –Revelation 19:11-16

I said previously that the vast majority of Christians see no particular significance in Elul or the approach of Rosh Hashannah and Yom Kippur, since as we are taught, Christ paid the price for our sins once and for all. Still, if you’re human, you know there’s a difference between the price being paid and our living perfectly sinless lives in the wake of being “saved”. There is no one who is above bowing to the King and begging His forgiveness for the wrongs we have done and continue to do.

Elul and ShofarIt is true that our King is “closer than a brother” (Proverbs 18:24) and He is always accessible through prayer, but there will be a time when we are judged for what we have done and what we have failed to do in His Name. Elul is an annual opportunity to review who we are and what we need to do to be better servants of our Master and better sons and daughters of our Father. “Rabban Gamliel would say: Assume for yourself a master” (Pirkei Avot 1:16) and we have done so. Now it is time to heed our Master’s wishes.

Although it would be easy to misunderstand the events commemorated in Elul and the High Holidays themselves as terribly grim and fearful, it is actually a time of great joy and wonder. The King is among us. He desires that we draw near to Him. He wants none to perish (2 Peter 3:9) and to that end, he calls to each of us, especially now. Though, as Peter says, the Lord is not slow “but is patient toward you”, he is also merciful enough to build “reminders” into his calendar for us. Elul is one of the markers along the road cautioning us and encouraging us.

During Elul, observant Jews add Psalm 27 to their daily prayers and the first verse should tell us why:

The LORD is my light and my salvation—
whom shall I fear?
The LORD is the stronghold of my life—
of whom shall I be afraid? –Psalm 27:1

Indeed, with the King walking among us, who should make us afraid?

During Elul, Jews often greet each other and bless each other by saying “Ketivah vachatimah tovah” which basically means “May you be inscribed and sealed for a good year.”

May it ever be so for this year and always.