The High Holydays that begin each Jewish year are called the Yamim Noraim – the Days of Awe. For many Jews it is a time of fear and trembling at the approach of the Day of Judgment. It is true that the High Holydays are an occasion for reflection and self-examination, a moment of decision and destiny, but they need not be a time of fear. Rather, they can be days of faith in God’s awesome power to transform ourselves and our world.
The Yamim Noraim are a time of faith in the Love of our Heavenly Father. They are a time of faith in His abundant compassion and mercy.
There is a prayer that we recite during the High Holydays whose refrain is “chatanu lefanecha, rachem alenu”, we have sinned before You, have compassion on us. This prayer is a prayer of supplication and repentance, and one would expect the melody that is used to accompany it to be somber and melancholy, in line with its character. The Sephardic melody that is sung for this prayer, however, is full of joy; and this is the sentiment that fills the congregation when it is sung each year in the synagogue. This is because the Sephardic attitude on the Yamim Noraim is one of total reliance on God’s love. They sing this prayer with a heart filled with the certainty that we are God’s children, and today is the day when He will wipe away all of our sins.
The Hasidic Master, Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev, used to tell his hasidim a story every Rosh Hashanah. He would recount this incident in a joyous fashion:
Once, just before Rosh Hashanah, he began, a woman came to visit me and wept bitterly.
“Why are you crying?” I asked her.
“Why shouldn’t I cry?” she replied. “My head hurts, my heart hurts.”
I told her, “Don’t cry, it will only make your heart and head hurt more.”
She then said to me, “How can I stop crying? I have an only son, and now this holy and awesome day is coming and I don’t know whether my son will survive when God passes judgment on His creatures.”
At that moment, Rebbe Levi Yitzchak continued, I understood who she really was, so I turned to her and exclaimed:
“Don’t cry! Your son will surely live when God passes judgment on His creatures.” Then I recited these words of Divine consolation from the prophet Jeremiah (31:19) with all of my heart and soul:
“Is not Ephraim a precious son unto me? Is he not a darling child? For whenever I speak of him, I earnestly remember him still: therefore my heart yearns for him; I will surely have compassion upon him, says the Lord.”
The High Holydays are a time of faith in God; they are a time of belief in Israel and belief in ourselves. They are an occasion when we can draw on the power of the Spirit to achieve a personal transformation. They are a moment for us to seek that inner experience which will revive our optimism and hope.
During the Yamim Noraim, Jews go to synagogue all across the globe to pray for a good year. They turn inward in reflection and self-introspection. They look toward God for help, guidance and support.
The consecration of this time period in this special manner creates a spiritual opening in the heavens. In response to the spiritual call of the Jewish people, Knesset Yisrael, the Soul of Israel, draws closer to overshadow all those who are in incarnation on the physical plane.
There is a great mobilization in the heavens during the Yamim Noraim. A vast network of light and energy is vitalized to facilitate the influx of the Love and Compassion of God into the hearts and minds of the Jewish people. This is the zichut avot – the merit of the fathers and mothers – that is awoken during this season. On the High Holydays, the power, energy and love of the Soul of Israel come flooding in to fill us with strength and guidance for the year ahead. New spiritual links are forged with our individual and root souls (our neshama and shoresh neshama). New ideas and ideals enter into our consciousness. New possibilities open up for us in both our outer and our inner lives.
The High Holydays, therefore, are a time of spiritual opportunity. They are a chance for us to initiate real changes in our lives. The Rabbis teach that there are three things which will enable us to maximize the spiritual benefits of this period: “teshuvah, tefilah, utzedakah”, repentance, prayer and charity. These three practices will align us with the Soul of Israel. These spiritual cleansing agents will wipe away the negative karma in our lives. They will infuse the coming year with Divine livingness. They will help us to be inscribed in the Book of Life.
The first principle is Teshuvah. Teshuvah is repentance or return to God. We are easily distracted by the practical matters of our physical existence. Focusing on the stresses and strains of daily life, we tend to lose sight of the large picture – of the concerns of the Spirit. We forget who we really are and what life is truly about.
To return to God is to turn our hearts back in His direction. Teshuvah means to think about our future and the wellbeing of our soul. Returning to God is about moving from forgetfulness to remembrance; remembering the purpose for which we have come into this world.
The symbol of this process is the shofar (ram’s horn). The shofar is a powerful blast to shake us from our complacency. It is a call to awaken from our spiritual slumber. The shofar is an urgent sounding of the alert to remind us that time is passing, that the clock is ticking; that one day soon our earthly existence will come to an end.
An important part of the process of return is the work of self-transformation. If we wish to approach closer to God, then we need to make an active effort to remove the barriers that stand between us. This effort is concentrated around the Ten Days of Repentance between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur and centers on the task of purifying our midot, our character.
On each of the Ten days of repentance, we take up the quality of one of the ten sephirot, the ten Divine attributes, and make it the focus of our attention. The first day is keter (crown) – the will of God – to learn how to harness our willpower, to develop a strong one-pointedness in our spiritual life; then comes hochmah (wisdom) – to learn how to act with wisdom, to cultivate what the Bhagavad Gita calls “skill in action”; binah (understanding) – to reach beyond superficial knowledge of objects, people and ideas to understand their essential nature; chesed (mercy) – to show mercy to others and mercy to ourselves; gevurah/din (power/judgment) – to develop the power of discrimination and clear judgment; tifferet (beauty or glory) – to express beauty in our lives; netzach (victory) – to strive for victory in the conflict with our lower self; hod (splendor or thanksgiving hodiyah) – to be grateful and give thanks for everything that we have received in our life; yesod (foundation: attraction is the foundation of all life) – to be attracted to God, to matters of the Higher Self; and malchut (kingship) – to live in harmony with the earth and all that belongs to it, and to have the thoughtful, measured speech of a king.
By reflecting on each of these ten Divine attributes, and contemplating how we can purify its expression in our lives, we will take important strides toward transforming ourselves into a worthy vessel to receive God’s light and inspiration during the coming year.
A crucial aid in this endeavor is the second of the three concepts enumerated above: tefilah, prayer. Prayer, at its most fundamental level, is intense supplication before God. Prayer is turning to God with a sincere and open heart and asking for His help in our struggles.
This aspect of prayer is also symbolized by the shofar. Sounding the shofar is not only a means of raising the alarm; it is also a call to battle. Joshua and the Children of Israel utilized the sound of the shofar to bring down the walls of Jericho. We can use the power of sincere prayer to break down the “wall of materiality” that separates us from God. Like the Children of Israel circling the walls again and again until they tumbled, we can send forth a constant stream of prayer to God beseeching Him to come to our aid.
This type of prayer is like “taking heaven by storm”, and it is a powerful spiritual tool. But there is also another very different type of prayer as well.
The Torah declares, “Hu tehilatcha vehu Elochecha”, “He is your praise and He is your God.” (Deuteronomy 10:21) The Hasidic Master, Pinchas of Korentz, teaches that there are two levels to prayer. One level is like a supplicant coming before the King. On this level of prayer, God (the King) in His mercy grants our request. In this prayer, we, our prayers and God all remain separate entities.
Then there is a second level of prayer, where we do not plead before God, rather we strive to bind ourselves to Him and become one. In this state of awareness, there is no separation between our prayers, God and us. In this prayer, all is merged into a single unity. This level of prayer is like a king’s son who takes whatever he needs from the stores of his father.
This second level of prayer, Rebbe Pinchas explains, provides the interpretation for the above verse from the Torah. This verse should be read: “He is your psalm (tehilatcha) and He is your God.” When we enter into the prayer of union, God and our prayer (our psalm) become one.
This type of prayer is a higher level of communion that we can strive to reach on the High Holydays. We can strive to experience the infinite love of our Heavenly Father. We can seek to discover the hidden knowledge inside us that we are all children of the King.
This higher level of tefilah is symbolized by a different type of sound from the shofar. This sound is like a cry of yearning for God from the depth of our soul. It is a rising note that reaches right up into the heavens. It is a moving wave of energy vibration that leads us straight back to our source.
Each of the three symbolic meanings of the shofar, in fact, is represented by a specific type of sound during the High Holyday service. The sound that raises the alarm is called truah. The call to battle is the shevarim. The cry of pure yearning for God is the tekiah, especially the tekiah gedolah (the great tekiah).
The third principle in the process of tikkun and transformation on the Yamim Noraim is tzedakah (charity). When we give charity to others we are cutting through the selfish mindset of the lower self and revealing the Divine consciousness of the higher Self. When we care for those who are less fortunate than ourselves, we are bringing the power of faith and hope into the world.
To give tzedakah, however, means more than just to donate money; it means to possess a generous spirit – to have a charitable heart. The High Holydays are a time when we open our hearts to others. They are an occasion for forgiveness and reconciliation. They are a time to forgive others their imperfections and failings. They are a moment to forgive ourselves.
This is the essence of the Ten Days of Repentance between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. During these ten days, we go to all those who we have hurt, to all those who we have caused pain, and we ask them for forgiveness. We seek out dear ones that we have lost through arrogance and anger, and we do our best to mend the bond.
Goodwill is the power that propels this process forward. An open heart is the engine that brings it alive. During these ten days we have profound faith that we can fix that which we have broken. We have inner confidence that we can repair our relationships with others and our relationship with God.
Once, when Rebbe Raphael of Bershad, a disciple of the Hasidic Master Pinchas of Koretz, was about to leave for his summer retreat, he asked one of his brother hasidim, Reb Shmuel, to share his carriage with him. Reb Shmuel hesitated to join him saying, “I am afraid I shall crowd you.” Rebbe Raphael then turned to him and remarked, “Let us love each other more, then we shall have a feeling of spaciousness.”
According to the tradition, the courtyard of the Temple was filled to overflowing on Yom Kippur day. Hundred of thousands were packed into the courtyard, with hardly a free inch of space to be found. Yet, at the moment when the High Priest came out of the Holy of Holies to bless the people, everyone fell on their faces in awe, and there was enough space for every person to prostrate fully, despite the lack of place before.
On Yom Kippur, we enter into a state of consciousness that is beyond time and space. We enter into a place where there are endless possibilities. We enter into the Ocean of Boundless Divine Love where all of our sins are washed away.
On Yom Kippur we touch the supernal source of the dynamic force of spiritual optimism. This supernal source is the power of essential goodness to which we have given the name of God. This force of goodness is the Primordial Will which gave birth to all of existence. As the Ari explains in his teachings, God created the universe because He wanted to manifest His infinite light and blessing in a concrete form.
On Yom Kippur we tap into this limitless source of Love and Goodness. We bind ourselves to it with all of our heart, mind and soul. We immerse ourselves in its benevolent radiance. And then we take hold of the dynamic power of spiritual optimism and begin our New Year with courage, faith and hope.
This idea is symbolized on Rosh Hashanah by the tradition of eating an apple dipped in honey while reciting the following blessing: “May it be Your Will to renew for us a good and sweet year.”
This tradition is more than just a positive gesture; it is an act that is filled with spiritual power. We are evoking the Will of God. We are calling out for His compassion and grace. We are yearning for goodness and sweetness. We are striving to be saturated with the sublime sweetness of God’s loving embrace.
In the desert, the Torah tells us (Deuteronomy 32:13) that God made the Children of Israel to “suckle honey out of a rock.” To “suckle honey from a rock” is to know how to access the Divine sweetness that underlies this dense physical reality. This, in a word, is the essence of spiritual optimism. On the Yamim Noraim, we are asking God to give us the wisdom to know how to bring His Divine sweetness into our daily existence. We are asking Him to teach us how to find the good that is present even in the moments of difficulty and hardship in our lives.
Psalm 34:9 declares, “Taste and see that God is good.” It is one thing to believe that God is good; it is quite another thing to taste and see it. To “taste and see” is to recognize in the depths of our heart that God is good, and to receive a direct experience of that goodness. It is by tasting the sweetness of God’s presence and the unique joy of His love that we attain spiritual optimism. It is through the tangible knowledge of the living God that we become filled with confidence and hope.
The Yamim Noraim are a time for intense inner work. They are a chance to connect with the Soul of Israel. They are an opportunity to discover a fresh Divine sweetness. The High Holydays are a unique moment in time when we can draw on the might of God’s awesome power to transform our nation, our people, and ourselves.
Copyright © 2009, by Yoel Glick
first published on 18/9/2009