According to the Jewish calendar, we are in the last days of the month of Elul. This month, which usually falls in late summer, is traditionally a chance to review the months that just passed and take stock of where one is heading in life. Our self- reflection is intended as preparation for the coming High Holidays.
Many understand this period of High Holidays (Selichot, Rosh Hashanah, and Yom Kippur) as marking the Jewish New Year, which they do, however, it is probably easier to grasp the meaning of these holidays if you approach them as the Jewish Lent.
Over the next three weeks, as summer ends and the leaves prepare to turn, this connected set of holidays encourages Jews around the world to examine their lives and get back in touch with their better selves, taking steps to ensure a better year ahead. This process of repentance, reflection, and renewal is called teshuvah – which literally means to “turn around”.
The whole season of teshuvah kicks off this coming Saturday evening (August 31) with a prayer service called Selichot – which is a word that implies apologies. The Selichot service offers our first exposure to the haunting, poignant melodies and tropes of the traditional High Holiday music selections. The prayers for the service are a mix of traditional repentance and modern, existential poetry. The effect is usually quite moving.
Then, a few days later (this year, September 4-5) Rosh Hashanah arrives. This ancient holiday has slowly been transformed into what is commonly called the “Jewish New Year”. The holiday marks the start of what is called “The Days of Awe” – a ten day period of repentance that ends on Yom Kippur – the Day of Atonement.
There will be prayers reminding us of our short-comings and asking us to take an honest look at our lives. There will blasts of the shofar – or ram’s horn – sort of a wake-up call for the soul. And there will be many blessings said over apples and honey, challah, and wine to offer us a taste of what is hopefully a sweet year ahead.
Ten days later, Yom Kippur arrives. The evening before is the Kol Nidre service, developed in the middle ages for Jews to absolve themselves of oaths (baptisms, promises to convert, etc.) made under duress brought on by Christians. Modern Jews look at this night as a time to examine commitments and goals that no longer work and can now be let go.
Yom Kippur itself is a day of asking for forgiveness – both from God and from others. The day is one of fasting and wiping slates clean.
The sacred period we are about to enter is a mix of tradition and innovation, somberness and joy, and fasting and food. Some Jews will spend many days and nights in services, others will volunteer their time, and still others will make an effort to get outside in nature as a way to reset their lives.
I’ll be at services some evenings, on a few of the days I’ll be saying some of the services myself in the woods in a nearby state park, and on Rosh Hashanah I’m hosting a gathering of many friends to taste apples and honey and celebrate the end of summer.
As autumn approaches and the days grow shorter, most of us will be prompted to reflection. May we find the time to examine our lives and we may we find success as we try to become better human beings.