It is a mere three weeks since the holiest day in the Jewish calendar -- Yom Kippur, The Day of Atonement (at-one-ment). That holy day was preceded by Rosh HaShanah (The Jewish New Year. The current year being 5779), and quickly followed by Sukkot, The Feast of Booths, and Simchat Torah, a celebration of the year cycle of reading through the Torah and immediately beginning again with Bereishit, “In the beginning ....”
What a whirlwind of festivities and emotions. And if that were not enough, the month preceding the High Holidays is all about preparation – preparing for the holiday cycle to come. Daily meditations, the blowing of the shofar (ram’s horn) and other avenues of study are all employed in order that the holidays, once they arrive, are met not only with anticipation but focus.
Since the tenets of Judaism are not that well known outside the circle of practicing Jews ( “The remnants of My People”) or those scholars who study Religions of the World, I thought I would use today’s column to give you a little peek into the High Holiday prayerbook, or Machzor. This prayer book is separate from the one normally used for Shabbat and daily prayers. Of course, there are many machzorim to choose from. Since this year, I attended services in Butte, at the historic (115 year old!) synagogue, B’nai Israel, I will be quoting from the somewhat outdated (copyright 1978) Gates of Repentance, New Union Prayerbook for the Days of Awe.
Yom Kippur is observed through a 25-hour fast, not meant to punish or traumatize those participants, but to emphasize that during this most holy of days, we are like angels, so engrossed in the practice of prayer and delighting in the presence of G-d, that we do not need to eat. Other worldly habits are abandoned on that day as well: washing, wearing of jewelry and leather shoes, conjugal relations. Our focus is on how we perceive we have lived in the previous year. Have we lived up to our potential? Have we done enough for others? Have we asked forgiveness of those we may have wronged? Can we commit to striving to do better in the year ahead?
Many of the prayers are read responsively. Below, I will use italics to indicate the switch from leader/rabbi to congregants:
We are all tenants in the house of life; our days on earth are but a span.
Time, like a river, rolls on, flowing year after year into the sea of eternity.
Its passing leaves bitter memories of hours misspent.
Now they come back to accuse us, and we tremble to think of them.
But Your purpose gives meaning to our fleeting days, Your teaching guides us, and Your love sustains us.
To you we pray for the knowledge and strength to live responsibly.
Deliver us from bondage to the past; release us from the stranglehold of evil habits; make us free to start afresh.
Let this be for us the beginning of a new season of life and health.
Liberate us from the fear of death, and from the scornful laughter that mocks our labors.
Though our lives be short, let them be full; Judge us less harshly than we judge ourselves.
This is but one of a day’s worth of prayers (not to mention the preceding evening’s heartfelt prayers.) Space does not permit me to write much more. Perhaps next year, when the cycle comes ‘round again, I will add more to the story.
Judaism is a religion and way of life based on action, on deeds not just words. I will close with a segment of a much longer prayer:
We have sinned against life by failing to work for peace.
We have sinned against life by keeping silent in the face of injustice.
We have sinned against life by ignoring those who suffer in distant lands.
We have sinned against life by forgetting the poor in our own midst.
We have engaged in gossip and in repeated slander.
We have distorted the truth for our own advantage.
For all these sins, O G-d of mercy, forgive us, pardon us, grant us atonement.
Good words to live by for people of every faith tradition, and even those who profess none at all.
Kein yahe ratzon/May it be so.