From the Rabbi’s Desk October, 2019
Rabbi Carla Freedman
As we approach the High Holy Days, I am always struck by the solemnity of the start of the Jewish new year.
That feeling is captured in the phrase Yamim Nora-im, Days of Awe…the Ten Days that begin with the new year itself and end with the Day of Atonement. Rosh HaShanah does have a celebratory quality, in that, according to our sages, it celebrates the creation of the world. Using information in the Bible, the rabbis of old calculated the age of the world, and gave us the calendar which we still use today. According to that calendar, we will begin the new year of 5780 on Tishre 1, which corresponds, this year, to September 29 in the evening.
Despite the “birthday” aspect of Rosh HaShanah, the entire period of the Yamim Nora-im is serious. We are expected to take to heart the notion that our fate for the coming year is determined by the sincerity of our repentance during these days. This idea is contained in the appropriate greeting for this season, “May you be inscribed and sealed in the Book of Life for a good year”. Jewish folklore tells us that, on Rosh HaShanah, God takes down from the shelf a three-volume Book, into which all of our names have been entered. The first volume, very, very thin, contains the names of those who have been entirely good over the past year, who will certainly be inscribed for a good new year. The third volume, also very, very thin, contains all the names of those who have been exclusively bad, and their fate is also obvious. Those two volumes are returned to the shelf, but the huge middle volume, which contains all the rest of us, remains open from Rosh HaShanah till the very end of Yom Kippur. And we have those Days of Awe in which to influence what will be decided for us by the sounding of the last shofar call on Yom Kippur.
Our liturgy clearly says that God will make those decisions. And the Mishna (Mishna Yoma 8:9) teaches us that Yom Kippur can only offer forgiveness of sins committed against God; for sins committed between people, we must first obtain human forgiveness. That determines how we should spend those Ten Days: assessing our life over the past year, considering to whom we need to go to ask for forgiveness, and then doing so. Our tradition also teaches that we should emulate God, who forgives those who sincerely repent. So if we use those Ten Days wisely, God will be eager to accept our repentance, and we will, indeed, be inscribed for another good year.
I think we can choose to understand this image of an inscription in the Book of Life a little differently. Maybe our own actions constitute what is written in the Book. If that is the case, then we control our own fate. And if we have not been entirely successful in earning another new year, then we can use those Ten Days to figure out how we can do a better job in the coming year. We can identify our errors, make plans to avoid repeating them, and commit ourselves to achieving a better outcome. We can seek forgiveness between Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur, and then spend the Day of Atonement consolidating our intentions for the coming year.
However you understand all this, I hope you will make good use of the Holy Days before us, and you will exit Yom Kippur feeling relieved and renewed.
Jeanne and I wish you a new year of health, peace and joy.
L’shanah tovah tikateyvu v’tikhateymu.
May you inscribe yourself in the Book of Life, and seal it for a good year.