Most holidays commemorate specific events like America's national independence, the Jewish exodus from ancient Egyptian slavery, the birth and death of Jesus of Nazareth, Judah Maccabee's victory over a tyrannical emperor, the Pilgrims' first harvest in Massachusetts or God giving the 10 Commandments to Moses on Mt. Sinai.
When we celebrate those events that took place hundreds or even thousands of years ago, we are keenly aware that we are gazing back into time, remembering another age, and not our own.
That is not the case with the Jewish High Holy Days of Rosh Hashanah/the New Year (last Monday and Tuesday) and Yom Kippur/the Day of Atonement (Wednesday). Surprisingly, they do not commemorate any unique historic events, although Jewish tradition says the world was created during this holiday season 5,752 years ago.
It is always easier to stand in our time frame and look back at what other men and women did or did not do. But the High Holy Days do not permit this; they force us to confront ourselves.
Both Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are intensely personal, "now centered" holidays. They are not a retreat to the past when others blazed new spiritual or national trails for us. The High Holy Days demand that we hold up a mirror to ourselves and evaluate our own ethical behavior. No wonder this time of the year is called "The Days of Awe."
It is psychologically safer to analyze Thomas Jefferson's political views when he wrote the Declaration of Independence, or discuss why Moses became angry with the children of Israel for worshiping a golden calf while he was atop Mt. Sinai receiving God's words, or debate the role of the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate, in the death of Jesus.
But Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur allow no exit from the incredibly difficult task of assessing our personal lives. The holidays ask three questions that we usually avoid the rest of the year:
* What have we done with our life during the past year?
* Where are we now in our life?
* What do we plan to do with our life in the coming year?
The synagogue liturgy provides a graphic image to sharpen these questions. A Book of Life is opened at this season, and God judges the ethical quality of our individual lives. This image is haunting enough, but at the end of the High Holy Days the ledger is sealed, and only those people who will survive the coming year have their names inscribed in the Book of Life.
During the High Holy Days services, the worshipers repeatedly cry out: "Inscribe us, O God, in the Book of Life!" One of the reasons that Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur exercise such an enormous grip upon the Jewish people is because the holiday theme is so personal and contemporary.
No one, after all, can safely predict who shall live and who shall die in the coming year. Who among us can truthfully declare that we have lived through the past year without hurting others or without transgressing God's ethical commandments? And who can truly say, "My life is complete and spiritually fulfilled?"
The High Holy Days have the potential to shatter our carefully constructed defenses, and they compel us to seek atonement with God and forgiveness from those whom we have wronged. But can all this really be done within a 10-day period beginning on Rosh Hashanah and ending on Yom Kippur? Probably not, but at least we know what is expected of us.
In another time (before the Holocaust) and another place (Eastern Europe), rabbis would actually delay the start of a High Holy Day service if some members of the congregation had not sought forgiveness from those they had wronged during the past year. The rabbis would wait and wait and wait, until finally the people were reconciled with one another.
It is hard to imagine that happening in today's society. But it is this exhilarating tradition of becoming spiritually renewed, or performing the sometimes painful acts of contrition and confession, of looking at ourselves with an honesty and intensity that is absent the rest of the year. . . . It is for precisely these reasons that Jews absent themselves from all work or school on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur and flock to the synagogue in great numbers. And that is why we greet one another, and indeed, the entire world with the joyous words, "L'shanah tovah tikatayvu, " "May all of us be inscribed for a good, healthy, and peaceful New Year!"