When our middle son was in preschool, his teacher asked him to explain to the (overwhelmingly non-Jewish) class what the Jewish New Year was all about. Four-year-old David told them that on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, Jews go to a big building and "forgive God."
Well, something like that. This week, Jews all over the world are gathering to observe the "Ten Days of Awe," the period that begins with Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, and culminates with Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.
Like other Jewish holidays (Passover, Sukkot), Rosh Hashanah is celebrated for two days in a row (at least by Conservative and Orthodox Jews). For two days we perform almost exactly the same service and recite the same prayers. Seems pretty repetitive, I know, and it is. Actually the Jewish liturgy is nothing if not repetitive. If it's worth saying once, the sages apparently believed, it was worth repeating at least four times.
But I digress. The reason we celebrate these key holidays for two days instead of one is due to the Diaspora. After the Jews were dispersed from Israel in 70 CE, following defeat in the rebellion against Rome and the destruction of the Second Temple, Jews were scattered all over the globe and often couldn't be sure exactly what day it was in the land of Israel. Accordingly, they celebrated important holidays for two days running to be on the safe side.
The crucial thing was to be sure that whether they were in London or Kiev or Calcutta, they were observing the holidays according to the date in Israel. They made an exception for Yom Kippur, which requires a 26-hour food and water fast. There's safe and then there's masochistic. Why do we continue this practice in the era of atomic clocks? Tradition!
Rosh Hashanah is nothing like the secular New Year. It isn't about revelry (though we do dip liberally into the apples and honey); it's about repentance. During this period, Jews are asked to examine their souls, consider the sins they have committed during the previous year and resolve to improve. The rabbinic literature on repentance is copious.
How can one demonstrate true repentance and not synthetic piety? The best way, the rabbis tell us, is to change . If you commit the same sins year after year and then fast on Yom Kippur asking for forgiveness, you can pretty well forget it. Your fast means nothing. The prophets were most acidic on the subject of showy fasts and insincere prayers.
The rabbis are also very clear on another point: It is essential to ask forgiveness from a person you have wronged before asking for God's forgiveness. You must also do everything you can to make the person whole. If you've committed a murder, this puts you in a difficult spot. So remember that. This is also the time of year when you are expected to pay your debts.
The Jewish liturgy is pretty savvy about human nature. The rabbis must have known that lots of us, faced with the necessity to repent, will say, "Gee, I've had a pretty good year. Haven't committed any sins I can think of." Perhaps that's why we do confession as a community, not individually.
In a prayer called the Al Cheyt, the sins are itemized. Here are some samples: "For the sin we have committed against you by evil speech . . . by wanton glances . . . by hardening our hearts . . . by envy . . . by desecrating your name . . . by effrontery . . . by tale bearing . . . by causeless hatred . . . by perverting justice." All bases are covered by confessions of sinning "knowingly and unknowingly," and "intentionally and unintentionally." If you cannot find yourself on that list, then you obviously need to look harder.
Psalm 130 captures the spirit succinctly: "Out of the depths I call to Thee, O Lord. O Lord, hear my voice; let thy ears be attentive to my supplicating voice. If thou, O Lord, shouldst keep strict account of iniquities, O Lord, who could live on? But with thee there is forgiveness . . . "
This kind of humility is a healthy antidote to the narcissism of modern life.