This has been a difficult few weeks. We witnessed two natural disasters that created so much loss of life, not to mention untold damage. On Sept. 11, we again mourned the loss of those who were killed during the worst terrorist attack on American soil. It is impossible to erase the images from our minds.
But even as we continue to mourn, we also come to appreciate our lives and the blessings we each have in this country. We cherish how in times of trouble we bond together as one people. I am so proud of how the Atlanta Jewish Academy community and the Atlanta Jewish community as a whole rose to support Houston and Florida these past few weeks.
In some ways the theme of the High Holidays seems to fit with our current mood. As we begin our journey this Saturday night with Selichot (prayers of repentance), working our way to the crescendo of Yom Kippur, we are again confronted with the notion of death.
Like 9/11 and our recent natural disasters, the imagery of our vulnerability is visible on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. The Rambam says these days should be filled with fear and awe.
On Yom Kippur, we have a custom to wear a kittel (plain, white garment). The kittel resembles the shrouds we wear at death.
On Yom Kippur, we fast. Why? We are not commemorating a historical event or a tragedy as on other fast days, such as Tisha b’Av. We fast and do not sustain ourselves, as this brings us a little closer to our fragility. This helps put our mortality into perspective. On the eve of Yom Kippur, we say vidui (confessional prayers) to ensure that everyone has an opportunity to confess before the end of his or her days.
To further illustrate this theme, the Gemara in Rosh Hashanah poses the following question: “Why is it that we do not say hallel on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur?” The answer: “When the King sits in judgment with the Books of Life and Death open before Him, can Israel sing praise?” (Rosh Hashanah 32a). The High Holidays are when we confront the possibility of death, and therefore it is not an appropriate time to say hallel.
As with the events of the past few weeks, these explanations of the Yomim Noraim (Days of Awe) are depressing and difficult to comprehend. But the Yomim Noraim serve an additional function.
They have potential to give us the greatest joy in this world. The joy of waking up from our slumber. The joy of hearing the shofar and opening our eyes to the great promise of life and living. The joy of realizing how beautiful and how incredibly priceless our family and friends are.
Not only can the Yomim Noraim be a joyous time, but they can also serve as a time of renewal. That same kittel that is worn on Yom Kippur is also worn when we stand under the wedding chuppah. A chatan (groom) does vidui before his wedding, as the wedding is a renewal of life — a new beginning.
On Rosh Hashanah, we have oneg and simcha — we celebrate! Honey, pomegranates, round challahs and teiglach (pastries) are some of the many minhagim (customs) that support the message of Rosh Hashanah. Overall, the entire Yomim Noraim are a time for joy and renewal to encourage a new appreciation for life.
At the end of Yom Kippur, the final shofar blast is blown. What do people do? What is their attitude? People are elated — they hug and kiss one another. You find your spouse, your partner, your friends, your parents, your children, and you hug them. The feeling is “We did it.”
Perhaps this elation comes from the consciousness of our own lives and the appreciation of those who are close to us.
On the one hand, we are urgently pleading for life and forgiveness. At the same time, as the Mishnah says, the days of great happiness are ahead — a happiness that comes with an authentic appreciation for life. When we stop to think about how wonderful life is and take stock of the blessings G-d has given us, this will bring us true joy.
Wishing joy to all of you, and strength and comfort for all of those who are experiencing challenges or distress.
Rabbi Ari Leubitz is the head of school at AJA.