Once a year, as the season changes from summer to autumn, Jewish people come together to celebrate and consider new beginnings. For 10 days, starting with Rosh Hashanah (Oct. 2-3, 2016) and ending with Yom Kippur (Oct. 11-12, 2016) — we contemplate the year gone by and how we can do better in the future.
The Talmud, one of the major books of Judaism, states that the Book of Life, in which God records every name of those destined to go to Heaven, is opened on Rosh Hashanah and closed on Yom Kippur. The 10 days in between are known as the Days of Awe, and are considered an opportunity to prove one’s righteousness to God — to make sure you get written in the Book of Life, rather than the Book of the Dead. How? Through prayer, repentance, and tzedakah (commonly translated as “charity” or “good deeds”).
There are lessons to be learned from this period of introspection. In Judaism, the concept of atonement is divided by transgression — you can only ask for absolution from God for sins against God. Atoning for sins against other people requires confessing to them directly, asking for their forgiveness, and refusing to commit that transgression in the future.
This personalized approach to individual repentance is sorely lacking in a society that commits many of its transgressions against other people from the safety of a computer screen.
Take, for instance, the Jewish proscription against lashon hara — roughly translated as “evil tongue.” It is a serious sin in Judaism to speak ill of others. The Talmud indicates that people who regularly badmouth others are not permitted in the presence of God. Today, with a regular brigade of internet trolls, an increasingly polarized culture, and the easy access of an anonymous soap box for every issue — this grave sin is virtually ubiquitous.
We also seldom take the time to commit acts of charity or do good deeds. In Judaism, there are 613 mitzvot, or commandments. Obeying these commandments is considered a good deed — something likely to get your name written in the Book of Life. While many of these rules are specific to Judaism, some are laws we all must follow. The commandments warn us not to:
- oppress the weak;
- bear a grudge;
- break vows;
- take from or withhold charity;
- fail to repay a debt;
- fail to protect or defend someone whose life is in danger;
- or insult or harm others with words.
No one is perfect. Even Moses, possibly the greatest prophet in Judaism, sinned in doubting God (Numbers 20:12) and was therefore not permitted to enter the Land of Israel before he died. Everyone has doubts, and everyone commits transgressions, simply by virtue of being human and therefore fallible. In Judaism, we get 10 days to consider our sins, and atone for them — but that’s not all.
While the High Holy Days have a serious religious significance — even relatively lapsed Jews attend Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services, in the same manner as Christians who only go to church on Easter and Christmas — there is an element of celebration amid the hard thinking and atoning. We wish for a sweet new year on Rosh Hashanah by dipping apples in honey, and we wash away the past by emptying our pockets (usually filled with small pieces of bread) into a running stream. While we may spend the next week or so atoning for our sins, those sins are forgiven, and we start the new year with a clean slate, looking toward a promising future.
L’shanah tovah — to a good year!