Preparing for the High Holy Days

by Arliene Botnick, August 31, 2022

It’s almost 5783. The Jewish New Year is upon us and how do we get ready? What are the steps that we will take as we look to a new year? Well, there are actually a myriad of things that many of us do in order to prepare. At a practical level, some of us are starting to plan our menus because the celebration of the Jewish New Year is a family time, a time to sit around a table with friends and family to celebrate together the wonderful gift of life that we all share. We don’t celebrate at this time with raucous parties (which are fun) or with silly hats (which are cute) or with an abundance of alcohol (although there can be some delicious wines at our dinners); rather, we have lovely Rosh Hashana dinners, inviting those nearest and dearest to us into our homes and enjoying one another’s company. And today, with the gift of Zoom, even those too far away to join us in person, can attend virtually these wonderful dinners (unfortunately, they can’t eat the great meals we have prepared.)

And then there are the gifts. Yes, some of us do gift gifts on the high holidays, extending wishes to family and friends for a bright new year. For many of us, those gifts are donations to charities in honour of the causes that our friends and family are supporting, and what better way to give someone a gift than by saying we will support all that they support, the charities that help those in need.

Another practical thing many of us are doing for the high holidays is going shopping for new clothes. Many Shammeses ago, I mentioned that some of my fondest memories were of my mother purchasing for me that one new outfit for the high holidays, often the only time new clothes were purchased for the year (and therefore really valued and appreciated). I still remember the royal blue wool suit (very itchy but very stylish for a 10 year old), the black patent leather shoes, and, of course, a pair of white gloves.

Another preparation for the High holidays is checking our calendars to make sure we have time off work. The high holidays fall on a Monday Sept 26 and Tuesday Sept 27 for Rosh Hashanah and 10 days later, on Wednesday Oct 5, we celebrate Yom Kippur. Most places of work are expected / obligated to allow employees time off for religious holidays. As well, our kids should not be in school on those days. I know that for, many of our kids, this is a challenge because they don’t want to miss school; it’s very close to the beginning of the year and they’re worried about falling behind, but education comes in many forms, and being at one’s synagogue on the high holidays is part of a life lesson that I hope they really value. Whatever they miss in school, they will catch up on!

Now to a spiritual preparedness. This is the time for Cheshbon HaNefesh (a tabulation, an accounting of our souls). This is the time to examine what has been done, what we have done over the past year and take responsibility for our wrong actions (chet meaning sin, or better translation, missing the mark) and make amends. It is difficult often to both recognize where we have done the wrong thing, and even more difficult to say “I am sorry”, but that is what Teshuvah is all about, repentance. We assess on the scale of life what’s been good, what’s been bad and most importantly, how we can do it better. Teshuvah means we can turn our behaviour around and make things better; we can change, we can have another chance. And if each one of us does better, maybe the world can get better!

The whole month of Elul, which proceeds Rosh Hashana, we hear the blast of the shofar to wake our souls up, to make us pay attention to how we have behaved and how we should behave. The Shofar sound is the Jewish alarm clock, as Maimonides called it, waking us up from our oft times “spiritual indifference”. Just as our ancestors heard that shofar being sounded before the commandments were received at Sinai, we hear that shofar at Solel and we hopefully again can hear God’s voice.

Finally, during the days of awe, let’s think about what it means to start a new year and to call it 5783. What is our beginning point in our day-to-day lives? It is still 2022, based on what is considered a secular, non-religious concept (but it’s very religious). 2022 is the date acknowledged as the beginning point because, for our Christian neighbours, it is believed that approximately 2,022 years ago, Jesus was born. That event, for us, is not the beginning in our theology. Our beginning dates back 5,783 years. 5783 is symbolically the time span since God created the world. Our rabbis calculated symbolically that the world was brought into being that “long “ago. We begin counting time from the very time the world was created. Our beginning is God giving us this world. God and only God is the beginning for us. God is One.

As we prepare for this Jewish New Year, let us get ready practically, spiritually, joyously. When we greet one another, we will say L’Shanah Tovah Umetukah, to a sweet and fulfilling New Year. We can be kinder to one another, more thoughtful, sweeter. As each of us tries to try to improve, perhaps the world will improve as well. As Rabbi Tarfon wrote: “It is not up to you to finish the task, but you are not free to avoid it.” This is a difficult time, and perhaps we’re always in difficult times, but we are still here and we are proud Jews and I am so happy to wish all of you a fulfilling and happy and sweet New Year.

Filed under: Educator's Message

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