These Days of Awe are Different; But Their Message is the Same

In less than two weeks, the New Year and the Days of Awe arrive.

For most of us, the coming Days of Awe will be so very different from any we have known. If anything, the looming specter of Covid-19 only heighten their significance

The Days of Awe bid us to strip away the veneer of our righteousness and act “as if” God is examining our conduct. These days urge us to examine who we have been with an eye toward who we want to be. Humbly, we acknowledge our shortcomings and resolve to improve in the year ahead.

Behold, it is the Day of Judgment. 

As a shepherd musters his sheep, causing them to pass under his staff, so do You cause every living soul to pass before You . . .

On Rosh Hashanah it is written

On Yom Kippur it is sealed

How many shall be born

Who shall live and who shall die

Who shall complete his years . . . 

And who shall not complete his years

Who shall be serene and who shall be disturbed

Who shall be at ease and who shall be afflicted

Who shall be poor and who shall be rich . . .

But repentance, prayer, and deeds of kindness and compassion avert the severity of the decree!

The excerpt above from the Unetaneh Tokef prayer, written by Kalonymous ben Meshullam in the eleventh century, starkly expresses the High Holy Day mood of impending judgment. 

It scares people. Some recoil from it. This year life seems more fragile than ever, but does the prayer mean to teach that those who die perish because they were deficient in character? Of course not!

This magnificent, though troubling, liturgical piece asks us to act “as if” our fate is in the balance. It urges us to turn away from pettiness and greed and to fill our days with as many acts of kindness as possible. If we do, two things will happen. We will become better people, and the world will become a better place.

 “Repentance prayer and deeds of kindness,” may not lengthen our days, but they will surely increase their value.

The Hebrew word for “sin,” חטא, (chet) connotes an action that we regret, but which is within our power to correct. The Days of Awe provide us with a special opportunity—although certainly we should try to be aware of the impact of our actions all the time—to ponder, reconsider, and adjust our behavior in a positive direction.

Yes, this year is so different. But the message of the Days of Awe is timeless. In one famous Midrash, the rabbis liken God to a parent whose son traveled a distance of 100 days from home.  His friends advise him to return to his parents.  He answered, “I cannot; I do not have the strength.”

His father sent him a message saying: ”Come as far as you are able, and I will come the rest of the way to you.”  (Pesikta, Rabati, Shuvah Yisrael)

Atonement during the Days of Awe is neither an act of God’s grace nor the result of humanity’s unilateral struggle.  It is rather the wonderful product of a Covenantal partnership, which allows the one who takes the process seriously to enter the New Year feeling cleansed and renewed.

This year our lives feel so cast adrift. More than ever we need the Days of Awe to help us find our way home. I truly believe if we make the effort to begin the journey, the Eternal One will lead us the rest of the way.

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