High Holy Day Obligations

By Rabbi William Kuhn

Apples and honey are perfect symbols for the beginning of the Jewish New Year, because the sweetness of the apples is intensified by the honey taste and texture, as we pray that our year will be equally as sweet.  Perhaps a more realistic flavor combination would be to pair a tart apple like a McIntosh or a Granny Smith with the honey, as it reflects a more Jewish attitude about life in general.  We know that life is never cloyingly sweet all the time, and it would be naïve for us to pray that our New Year would taste like a big bright Red Delicious apple 100% of the time.  We know that life is complex and filled with challenges, and there is plenty of tartness.  But during our High Holy Days we hope that whatever bitterness may lie ahead for us may be softened and diminished by the sweetness that we hold within our hearts.

Rosh Hashanah 5770 begins at sundown on Friday, September 18.  At Rodeph Shalom our services begin at 8:00 p.m. that evening, and continue at 10:00 a.m. Saturday, September 19 concluding at 3:00 p.m. with our Children’s Service.

Rosh Hashanah is a joyous and exciting time of the year, as we gather together to officially enter in the Jewish New Year.  We welcome each other as a family, as members of this sacred congregational community.  But Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and the ten Days of Awe, the days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are a serious time of year as well.  This is the time dedicated to self-reflection, when we take the time to pause and look deep into our souls and try to determine what we need to do to become better people in the year to come.

The High Holy Days are for the purpose of taking stock of our lives and to undergo the process of Cheshbon Ha’Nefesh, taking an “accounting of the soul.”  We should carefully weigh our deeds of the past year and determine what needs to be done to improve ourselves spiritually.  Preparing a balance sheet of our assets and liabilities, metaphorically, is what we are required to do.  How can we add to our “spiritual net worth?”  By dedicating ourselves to trying harder  to do away with the faults we know we have, and to work on the positive aspects of our lives in order to improve our own lives and the lives of those around us.

There is a verse in the Mishnah, the first code book of Jewish law, which states, “For transgressions against God, the Day of Atonement atones; but for transgressions of one human being against another, the Day of Atonement does not atone until they have made peace with one another.”

The point of this verse is that we must make the effort to go to those whom we have wronged during this past year and ask forgiveness from them.  If there is someone in your life who was on the receiving end of some transgression of yours, whether in word or in deed, then it is incumbent upon you to actually seek out that person, and apologize to him or her.  Judaism considers this kind of personal atonement to be an essential part of Yom Kippur.

Another method of fulfilling our obligations during the High Holy Days is gemilut chasadim, “acts of loving kindness.”  As we search our souls during these Days of Awe, we should dedicate ourselves to improving the world around us.  Each of us should find a worthy cause that we can join or support.  We should find something that fits our own particular God-given talents and uses our own particular level of wisdom, resources or energy, and make a solemn vow to ourselves that we will get involved in our cause, beginning now.

In summary, there are three actions we can take to make our High Holy Days more meaningful:  (1)  Take an accounting of your soul (Chesbon Ha’Nefesh); (2) Apologize to anyone you have wronged during the past year, and try to repair your relationship with each of these people; (3) Gemilut chasadim, Acts of loving kindness.  Make a vow to yourself to get involved in some activity to improve our world.

I pray that you will have a meaningful and fulfilling High Holy Day Season and that your prayer experience at Rodeph Shalom will lead to a richer, fuller life.

Emily and our family join me in wishing you a Happy, Healthy and Sweet New Year.

L’shana Tovah