By Rabbi Robert P. Kirzner | Temple Beth David
When we think of the High Holidays, we do so in two different ways.
The first is Rosh Hashanah. Most of us think of this festival as our New Year’s celebration. After all, we greet each other with “Shana tova!” — “A good year!” We dip apples in honey to reflect our hope for a sweet new year.
But the full greeting is “Shana tova tikateivu!” — “May we be inscribed for a good year!”
The implication clearly is that there is much more going on than a simple holiday celebration.
The second is Yom Kippur. We would all agree that this observance is far more solemn than the first. The atmosphere is more sober. We fast. We symbolically strike our chests as an expression of knowing we can be better than we have been. We spend an entire day in prayer and introspection.
At the end of the day we greet each other by saying, “G’mar chatima tova.” Literally, it means “May the signature be a good one.”
The High Holidays are known by another term. We refer to the entire 10 days beginning with Rosh Hashanah and ending with Yom Kippur as the Yamim Nora’im, which is commonly translated as Days of Awe. In the strictest sense of the word, they are indeed filled with a sense of awe.
The dictionary defines awe as “a feeling of reverential respect mixed with fear or wonder.”
This definition could not give us a better insight as to the nature of these 10 days. They are indeed days filled with reverence and fear, and we wonder at G-d’s creation and at our relationship with G-d.
Our fear comes in many forms, but perhaps none so appropriate to the season as the fear that comes from not knowing the future.
The rabbinic sages tell us to repent one day before our death. The implication is clear. The 10 Days of Awe remind us of this.
These awe-filled days compel us to acknowledge G-d’s gift to us with the creation of the world and, because the act of creation fills us with wonder, to look intensely at ourselves in terms of our relationships with G-d and with our fellow human beings.
We set aside 10 days to renew our sense of awe in the world around us and to renew our sense of awe in our human relationships. So the Yamim Nora’im are less schizophrenic than it would seem.
As we examine ourselves in the honest light of the Yamim Nora’im, we should call to mind this passage often associated with Yom Kippur: “For transgressions against G-d, 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 each other” (Mishnah, Tractate Yoma 8:9).
It is not all up to G-d. We bear the burden of seeking and granting forgiveness from one another. Only then can we fully appreciate and experience the awe that the High Holidays offer.
May we each find the awe in the coming Yamim Nora’im. May we all enjoy a shana tova u’metukah, a happy and sweet new year!