Teshuva, teffila u’tzedakah: return, prayer and justice.
These are the requirements of the High Holy Days. Teshuva; so that we return to ourselves, to others and to God. Tefilla, so that we achieve this return through our act of prayer and of allowing ourselves to be still and listen. And Tzedakah so that we enact justice in the world through our righteous behaviour. These are the steps our tradition tells us enable us to change ourselves for the better. We change, not in leaps, but incrementally, and this is the genius of Jewish ritual. The Days of Awe enable us year on year to take incremental steps towards the person we are becoming and want to be. As each year progresses we experience a little bit more what this person can achieve and how it feels to be just a little bit different, each year building on our successes and mistakes since last Rosh Hashanah.
On Rosh Hashanah the gates of heaven are opened. It is as if God is saying, ‘Here, I have opened the path between us, lets walk, one towards the other, and, perhaps we will hear one another a little more clearly. Listen for My voice and I will listen for yours. Strain to hear My words and I will strive to discern your reply. Be still and open your soul to Me and I will too will be still and open Mine to you. Listen. Allow My words to speak to your heart, and help Me open the gates to all that is good and kind and loving. Be My partner. Help Me to be present in the world.’
The Days of Awe are so called not because we are to be cowed by the grandeur and mighty power of the Israelite God, a god that punishes and demands, but, I believe, because we are being called to listen. We are being called to sit still and pay attention: to ourselves, our loved ones and to the voice of our souls. And it is this sitting still, in genuine openness to whatever we may hear that is truly awe inspiring – one may even hazard, terrifying. But if we are able to still our fears of the quiet and not be afraid to wait and be open to the moment, well who knows what might happen? The High Holy Days are high and holy, precisely because as sacred moments we become almost suspended in time. It is as if time itself is at one and the same moment, condensed and stretched out before us. For this moment to have meaning, we need to allow ourselves to become fully immersed in the process; to allow ourselves to be open to the possibility of small sparks of Divinity.
This, I believe, is the meaning of the Days of Awe. But, to still our minds and our bodies, so that we can stop and become receptive to the truths of our lives, requires a vulnerability that many of us rarely risk. The sages called Yom Kippur the Sabbaths of Sabbaths. A day filled not with activity, but inactivity, not with instructions and directions to others about what and how to ensure something happens, but instead a day in which we look inwards to ourselves and ponder how we achieve meaning. To enter an encounter with ourselves panim al panim, face to face.
And so as we head towards Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, I would like to take this opportunity to wish all of us a meaningful High Holy Day season. May we all have time to simply be; away from the demands of the day to day and away from the demands of keeping everything afloat and instead may we find that we are all able to be still and listen.
Rabbi Kath Vardi