GOOD MORNING! The ten-day period that begins with the two days of Rosh Hashanah (this year, Sept. 7-8) and ends with Yom Kippur (Sept. 16) are known as Aseres Yemei Teshuvah or the “Ten Days of Repentance.” These days are also known as Yomim Noraim or the “Days of Awe.” In the United States, these days are commonly referred to as the “High Holy Days.”

It is interesting to note that the term High Holy Days rather markedly points to the connection between the words “holy day” and “holiday”; the word holiday actually comes from the Old English hāligdæg, from hālig (holy) + dæg (day). Literally speaking, a “holiday” is supposed to be a “holy day.”

This concept dates back to the time when the vast majority of humanity worked very hard just to provide themselves with food and shelter. Holidays were primarily a religious day of rest and reflection that revolved around attending religious services. These were days set aside for spending time with our families and friends and communing with the Almighty.

Not coincidentally, the Hebrew word “shabbat” also means to rest, and for observant Jews the Sabbath day revolves around disconnecting from their very busy work week lives. For 25 hours every week they go “off the grid” and refocus their energies; attending synagogue, studying Torah, celebrating festive meals with family and friends, and meditating on the meaningful elements of their lives.

As the Western World has grown more secular, these “holy days” began to be viewed primarily as vacations from work and about taking trips; thus they slowly morphed into holidays. One can only imagine what would happen if a British father would tell his kids that this year he would be taking them on a very special “holiday” – and then proceeded to take them to spend eight hours in a church or synagogue. They’d probably start looking for another family to adopt them.

In truth, the Jewish concept of “Days of Awe” can be viewed in more than one way. In one sense the word awful just means an extreme – as in; “Jeff Bezos has an awful lot of money.” But spending eight or nine hours in a synagogue during the High Holy Days can be either awe-full or awful. The difference really depends on understanding what we are trying to accomplish during these days.

Last week we discussed the primary obligation that we are trying to achieve on Rosh Hashanah. In this week’s column I would like to discuss the rest of the “Days of Awe.” The Shabbat that falls between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur (“Day of Atonement”) is called Shabbat Shuva – the “Sabbath of Repentance.” The “Days of Awe” finally culminate with Yom Kippur. Traditionally, prior to the start of Yom Kippur, a yahrzeit or memorial candle is lit in memory of loved ones who have passed (see below for candle lighting times). Additionally, the memorial service, Yizkor, takes place on Yom Kippur. If you are unable to attend synagogue and would like someone to recite the Yizkor service for your loved one, please go to getkaddish.com/Yizkor. (For a full description of the laws surrounding this holy day, please see last year’s column here.)

Anyone familiar with the liturgy of Yom Kippur is aware that much of the service contains a very heavy dose of demonstrative remorse in the form of breast beating accompanied by a litany of words of confession and regret. Naturally, this leads to an incredibly somber mood and synagogue atmosphere. Refraining from all food and drink for 25 hours certainly compounds the misery.

With this in mind, the following passage in the Talmud (Ta’anis 26b) is nothing short of astonishing. Rabbi Shimon son of Gamliel said; “The Jewish nation has never had more festive days than the 15th of Av and Yom Kippur.” The Talmud goes on to explain that on those two days all the unmarried young men and women used to go to the vineyards and search out mates.

This is quite shocking. Somehow Yom Kippur was one of the two days a year chosen to arrange suitable matchmaking for young couples! What element of Yom Kippur makes this an appropriate day to do such a thing?

Furthermore, how can the Talmud characterize Yom Kippur as one of the two most festive days on the Jewish calendar? This seems like the exact opposite of Yom Kippur’s natural tone. From where does the feeling of joy emanate?

Regarding the obligation to repent we find the verse, “This commandment that you are charged (to obey) isn’t hidden nor far off from you” (Deuteronomy 30:11). The brilliant medieval Spanish scholar and philosopher known as Nachmanides concludes that this verse is referring to the mitzvah of repentance. Nachmanides continues; “this mitzvah is, in fact, not hard to do and it can be done at all times and in all places.”

Nachmanides’ description of the mitzvah of repentance as rather easy can be difficult to comprehend. After all, year after year, we seem to find ourselves in the same situation and repenting for the same sins as in previous years. His comment on the ease of repentance is reminiscent of the not quite-yet-reformed smoker who says, “Quitting smoking is the easiest thing in the world – I have done it a hundred times.”

Perhaps even more problematic; how can anyone honestly come back year after year and say the exact same words, asking God for forgiveness for the same sins time and time again? At what point is it no longer believable?

In all likelihood you, or someone you know, has struggled with their weight at some point. Imagine for a moment, someone who is very overweight but has committed to a strict diet is suddenly faced with a crucial test: a pizza pie with all the toppings, accompanied by two extra-large orders of fries, has “miraculously” been delivered to them.

Obviously, some people will be able to overcome their urge to inhale this pizza and fries (we call them weirdos). But others will likely succumb to their desires. Why?

Most people who succumb to the “pizza test” are thinking, “Let’s face it – I weigh 300 lbs., who am I kidding?” and proceed to devour the entire pizza and fries. In other words, the reason they continue down the same path is because they look at themselves as overweight and perceive that essentially that’s who they are. Their commitment to a diet was rooted in trying to change their behavior – when they really should have been focused on trying to change their perception of themselves.

Controlling one’s behavior is extremely difficult – but changing who you are is based on reimagining who you want to be and redefining your self-identity. A morbidly obese person who keeps kosher isn’t tempted to eat a cheeseburger or non-kosher “baby back” ribs – no matter how delicious it might potentially be – because he simply knows that as a person who keeps kosher that behavior is off the table. He has self-defined as a person who keeps kosher and that behavior contradicts his very essence.

This is what Nachmanides means when he says that real repentance is easy. Merely trying not to sin by resolving to control one’s behavior is like trying to solve the symptoms of an illness without addressing the root cause. Not only is it supremely difficult to try and manage – it is simply ineffective.

Our mission on Yom Kippur is to explore who we really want to be and commit to being that type of person. Just like a person who has committed to keeping kosher isn’t really tempted by a cheeseburger because it doesn’t exist in his universe, so too committing oneself to a new definition of what kind of person you want to be will result in more control over how you behave. That is, once we define what we want our essence to be then we can naturally align our behavior to meet that new reality.

This is exactly what repentance is supposed to accomplish. While it is true that we must distance ourselves from how we behaved in the past, our commitment isn’t merely a behavioral change, it is a change of self-definition. We internalize the following statement, “In the coming year I may be faced with a test of the same sin; hopefully I will be able to restrain myself because I truly do not want to be that type of person. I may not be perfect, but my mistakes won’t be a failure of self-definition.”

Self-defining provides a person with a purpose and a life mission. A person who is mindlessly driven by hedonistic desires or personal insecurities inexorably goes down a vapid path leading to self-destruction. (This is one of the reasons that we are enjoined to disengage from all forms of physical pleasure on Yom Kippur so that we can work on the spirit.) By contrast, a person who has achieved growth through self-definition becomes empowered.

Because Yom Kippur is the day when we search for who we are and commit to living a life that follows our self-definition, it becomes the ideal day for matchmaking. This exercise in self-growth puts us in touch with who we truly are and thus we can understand who we need to marry to have the most amazing life partner.

Ultimately, when the work of Yom Kippur is done correctly, it leads one to self-fulfillment. This is why the Talmud describes it as one of the most festive days on the Jewish calendar. Reconnecting with who you truly are leads one to incredible self-satisfaction and a sublime sense of joy.

Torah Portion of the Week

Vayelech, Deuteronomy 31:1 - 31:30

Vayelech begins with Moses passing the torch of leadership to Joshua (Yehoshua). Moses then gives Joshua a command/blessing, which applies to every Jewish leader: “Be strong and brave. Do not be afraid or feel insecure before them. God your Lord is the One who is going with you, and He will not fail you nor forsake you.”

Moses writes the entire Torah and gives it to the Cohanim and Elders. He then commands that in the future at the end of the Shmita (Sabbatical Year) the king should gather all the people during the Succot festival and read to them the Torah so “[…] that they will hear and learn and fear the Lord your God and be careful to perform all the words of the Torah.”

The Almighty describes in a short paragraph the course of Jewish history (that's starting from Deuteronomy 31:16 for the curious). Lastly, before Moses goes to “sleep with his forefathers,” he assembles the people to teach them the song of Ha'azinu, the next weekly Torah portion, to remind them of the consequences of turning against the Almighty.

Candle Lighting Times

“I want happiness!” – If we remove the ego (“I”) and all wanton desire (“want”) then we are only left with “happiness.”


Dedicated by Jill and David Lindenbaum

in Honor of George Lindenbaum

 

In loving memory of
Rabbi Kalman Packouz
Kalman Moshe ben Reuven Avigdor
1950-2019

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Yitzchak Zweig

Copyright © 2021 Rabbi Yitzchak Zweig