Image: A Jew with dark hands, wearing a tallit, blows the shofar (ram’s horn.) (Photo: David Cohen/Shutterstock)
We arrive at the end of Elul, the Days of Awe are upon us, and we aren’t done. There are apologies that were too hard to make, words that were too hard to say, things too hard to figure out in one short month. Or maybe we procrastinated.
Teshuvah is usually translated “repentance” but it would be just as accurate to translate it as “return” or even “turn.” We strive to return to the path, but as with a disoriented hiker lost in the woods, sometimes the path is hard to locate, hard to walk, just beyond us for now.
But the Days of Awe are upon us, and with them the magnificent liturgy of the High Holy Day services. We will do our best to open our hearts, and see where the services take us. Don’t worry about keeping up; let your mind and spirit be guided by the words on the page, by the music, by the sermon. Float.
In 1978, Diana Nyad first attempted to swim from Cuba to Florida. She kept trying. She was finally successful this past week. Over thirty years of training and repeated attempts finally ended in success at age 64. She kept returning to the task, and the number of turns it took ultimately added to her accomplishment.
We balance between taking the time for multiple tries, and the knowledge that our lives are limited. Do not despair if the task is hard. Do not fail to return to it.
Rabbi Tarfon said: The day is short, the task is great, the laborers are lazy, the wage is abundant and the master is urgent. – Pirkei Avot 2:20
- Swimmer Diana Nyad Completes Historic Swim From Cuba To Florida (whnt.com)
- Ten Things to Know About the Jewish Days of Awe (coffeeshoprabbi.com)
Give me a break.
Give a damn.
Give a blessing.
SHANA TOVA – (shah-NAH toe-VAH) – literally “Good year” it means “Happy New Year.” You can reply with the same words.
Some other greetings you may hear leading up to Rosh Hashanah and on the day:
L’SHANA TOVA (luh-shah-NAH toe-VAH) – literally “To a Good Year.” It also means Happy New Year, and you can reply in kind.
L’SHANA TOVA TIKATEIVU (shah-NAH toe-VAH tee-kah-TAY-voo) literally, “May you be written for a good year.”
GUT YUNTIFF – (GOOT YUN-tif), (Yiddish) “Happy Holiday.”
From Rosh HaShanah to Yom Kippur, it’s polite to assume that someone has already been “written in the book of life” so you wish them a “good sealing”:
GAMAR CHATIMAH TOVAH – (ga-MAR chah-ti-MAH toe-VAH) – “May your final sealing be good.”
Remember, you can never go wrong with “Shana Tovah!”
Image by Slava. Some rights reserved.
Remember the story of Joseph? He was his father’s favorite child, and annoying to boot, so much so that his brothers considered murdering him. They decided that they did not want his blood on their hands, so they sold him into slavery instead. He began his life in Egypt as a slave, but after many adventures, he rose to become the Pharaoh’s right hand man, managing the economy of Egypt during a terrible seven year famine. His brothers came to Egypt during the famine seeking food, and eventually realized that the mighty Vizier of Egypt was their brother Joseph. He sent for their father Jacob, and the family lived under Joseph’s protection in Egypt until Jacob died.
Then, with Jacob’s death, the brothers feared that Joseph would finally feel free to “get even” with this brothers. He had the power to order them all dead. Instead:
But Joseph said to them, “Don’t be afraid. Am I in the place of God? You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives. So then, don’t be afraid. I will provide for you and your children.” And he reassured them and spoke kindly to them. – Genesis 50:19-21
It turned out Joseph wasn’t plotting revenge. He knew what his brothers had intended when they sold him, but he took the longer view: he saw how things actually turned out. And unlike the child he had once been, he didn’t feel the need to lord it over his brothers.
People change. They grow up. They get older. We fantasize that we know “exactly what they are going to say.” And maybe we are right. Or maybe, like Joseph’s brothers, we are expecting rage or reproach when really, all we are going to get is a hug.
Let us open ourselves to the possibility of surprise about the intentions of others, as we continue our work towards the Days of Awe.
This post is part of an ongoing series “Especially for Beginners” in which I will try to give simple explanations for words and concepts in Jewish life. There is always a lot more to learn than in these little posts. If you want more, follow the links. To see what other topics I have covered in this series, click “Especially for Beginners” in the Category cloud on the right side of your screen.
Things to know about the Days of Awe:
- The Days of Awe are the ten days from Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, to the end of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.
- The Hebrew for the Days of Awe is Yamim Noraim [yah-MEEM no-rah-EEM].
- The Days of Awe are a time for concentration on teshuvah [turning, repentance], for mending relationships and adjusting the trajectory of our lives.
- Many Jews approach others during the Days of Awe to apologize for misdeeds, slights, and misunderstandings in the previous year.
- The teshuvah of the Days of Awe should be not only personal, but communal. Jewish groups, and the Jewish People as a whole confess their wrongdoings and make changes.
- Sometimes the Days of Awe are referred to as the Days of Repentance.
- The Shabbat that falls during the Days of Awe is called Shabbat Shuvah, the Sabbath of Repentance.
- Synagogue services during the Days of Awe are unusual. They have their own music, and they are frequently much longer. They are not typical of services the rest of the year. Hence this is not a good time to “shul-shop” [look for a synagogue.] During services, someone may sound the shofar, the ram’s horn.
- Synagogues often charge or sell tickets for the most crowded services, but most larger communities have services that are free or low-cost. Call a local synagogue or Federation to find out about your options, and do so well ahead of time (a month ahead is about right.)
- The simplest greeting for the Days of Awe is “Shanah Tovah!” [sha-NAH toe-VAH]. It means (roughly) “Happy New Year!”
How can a beginner participate in the Days of Awe?
- Attend services. If you cannot find a free service and do not want to pay, know that many services do not charge for some of the less-attended services: Selichot, Second Day of Rosh Hashanah, or Yom Kippur afternoon services. Shabbat services (other than Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur) are open to visitors as they are all year long.
- Listen to the sound of the shofar on Rosh HaShanah.
- Read about the Days of Awe, either online or in a book. The Beginner’s Guide to the High Holy Days is a place to begin.
- Participate in making teshuvah. For more about that, read Teshuvah for Beginners and The Jewish Cure for Guilt.
- Eat the traditional foods of Rosh Hashanah: Apples, honey, sweets, pomegranates (for a sweet new year.)
- Fast all or part of the day on Yom Kippur. See Tips for Fasting on Yom Kippur.
- Wish your Jewish friends “Shanah Tovah!”
- Consider signing up for a Taste of Judaism or Intro to Judaism course at your local synagogue. They often begin right after the High Holy Days.
I wish you a Shanah Tovah, a Sweet and Good New Year!
“Hope” is the thing with feathers –That perches in the soul –And sings the tune without the words –And never stops – at all –
As long as the Jewish spirit is yearning deep in the heart,With eyes turned toward the East, looking toward Zion,Then our hope – the 2,000 year old hope – will not be lost:To be a free people in our land, the land of Zion and Jerusalem.