Although the arrival of a new year is a cause for celebration, the major theme of Judaism’s High Holiday season is repentance. However, the Jewish tradition has also always understood that repentance is neither quick nor easy.
One cannot recite a few prayers on Rosh Hashanah (New Year’s Day) or Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement) and assume that one has completed this process. In fact the rabbis designated the entire month of Elul – the month which immediately precedes the High Holidays – as a period of preparation for the Ten Days of Repentance. So, the High Holiday season really began with the first of Elul (August 19th, this year), when we started blowing the Shofar (ram’s horn) each morning at the conclusion of our daily service.
If one combines the thirty days of the month of Elul with the Ten Days of Repentance, one has forty days in which to consider seriously one’s relationships with God and with others. This time period of forty days corresponds directly to the forty days which Moses spent on Mt. Sinai receiving the Ten Commandments.
Moses spent forty days in dialogue with God, contemplating his own future as well as the future of our people. When he completed this forty-day process, he was ready to challenge and change not only himself, but the entire nation.
We, too, can use our forty days as a springboard to action. We all know the prayers that catalogue our various sins. We all know the promises and resolutions that we make each New Year. Unfortunately, we also know how little time it takes until we revert to our pre-Rosh Hashanah routine. (Not so different from the resolutions we make on January 1, right?)
So, for those entering the High Holiday season intending to offer up all the usual words of repentance and atonement, please allow me to make two suggestions that might make this year’s vows stick.
First, make very specific promises. Instead of vaguely pledging to spend more time with your family, make a commitment to have dinner together as a family every Friday night – no matter what. Instead of saying that you want to learn more about Judaism, register for an actual class.
The second suggestion is to take one area of Jewish life, and make a commitment to raising your observance in that area. If you choose kashrut, for example, Rabbi Jack Moline (a Conservative rabbi in Arlington, VA) has devised a Year of Living Kosher, which is twelve steps to transforming your home into a kosher home over the course of twelve months.
If you choose tefillah (prayer), then you can commit to attending daily minyan or Shabbat services a specific number of times per month. If you choose tzedakah, then you can choose a specific organization or cause and give a specific amount of time and money each month.
Our forty days to devise our plan for the coming year began August 19th. We have until the concluding shofar blast of Yom Kippur on September 26th to get everything in order. Keep in mind that the first time Moses tried this, he came down from the mountain and smashed the Ten Commandments. God gave him a second chance. So, even if we don’t get it exactly right, we will always get a second opportunity. However, you have to start climbing the mountain sometime.
—Rabbi Avi Friedman,