When I was a little girl, a Sunday School teacher told me that on Rosh Hashanah, G-d opened a big book that had everyone’s names in it, young and old.
My teacher explained how, each year, between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, G-d decided who would live and who would die in the upcoming year. And how. By fire or by water; by plague or by earthquake. The list went on forever.
I remember imagining a really old, wrinkled guy in white robes sitting at a silver desk perched on top of clouds. In his smooth, shaky hand, he held a gold pen that he used to cross-out people’s names.
On The High Holy Days, I dressed in the fancy clothes that my mother had laid out for me and sat in temple all day with my family.
And as the adults chanted words in English and Hebrew, I played nervously with the knots on my father’s prayer shawl.
And I looked around and wondered who was not going to be there the next year.
Because it was a pretty scary idea: that G-d was making decisions all the time based on how we behaved.
(‘Cuz I wasn’t always the best little girl.)
But there was a lot more to that prayer: a part that I didn’t figure out until years later.
The prayer reads:
But Repentance, Prayer, and Charity avert the severe Decree! This is Your glory: You are slow to anger, ready to forgive. G-d, it is not the death of sinners You seek, but that they should turn from their ways and live.
Until the last day You wait for them, welcoming them as soon as they turn to You (314).
Those words are a gift.
They mean that if we really have open hearts and want to do right for all the messed up shizz we have done throughout the year, through prayer and acts of love and kindness, we can change a course previously set in motion.
Jews have ten days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur to try to set things right.
And G-d is reasonable.
Like a good parent.
For example, when your kid messes up and you calmly explain: “Listen, I asked you to clean your room, but you ignored me. If you clean your room, take out the garbage, wash the dishes, and walk the dog, you can have your iPod back tomorrow.”
G-d is cool like that. G-d does not say:
You were bad so I’m putting you out of your house, buddy. Nothing you can do about it now, sucker!
Not at all.
G-d wants us to recognize and admit that we have goofed up during the year.
And we can fix these things.
We can apologize.
To have that chance, to be able to fix what has been broken, is something I take pretty seriously.
There is a scene from the movie The Jazz Singer (with Neil Diamond) that I can’t watch without crying.
It is a scene that shows a little of what Yom Kippur is about.
For those of you who might be unfamiliar with the film, Yussel Rabinovitch, the son of an Orthodox cantor, decides to leave his religious tradition and follow his heart.
He leaves his synagogue and the expectations of his family to continue as a cantor. (Whaaat?)
He leaves his childhood sweetheart, Rivka. (Unheard of.)
He drives across country because he wants to sing popular music. Non-religious music. (He’s meshuganah.)
He changes his name, loses his Jewish identity, and becomes Jess Robin.
He meets another woman. (Oy.)
She’s not Jewish. (Double oy.)
They fall in love.
At some point, Jess is in New York and he runs into one of his father’s old friends who tells him that his father has been ill.
The doctors won’t let Cantor Rabinovitch sing on Yom Kippur due to his high blood pressure.
We learn that a Rabinovitch has always sung on Kol Nidre for — like — 912 generations. (Or at least 3.)
But Jess Robin humbly returns to his roots and becomes Yussel Rabinovitch for Yom Kippur.
Even though his father has declared him dead.
Even though he has been excommunicated.
He goes back to apologize the only way he can.
(Note: I start crying at 1:24.)
This is what we are supposed to do.
(No, not the singing thing!)
We are supposed to humble ourselves — to those we have hurt, to G-d — in that kind of honest way.
The High Holy Days give Jews a chance to reflect on the wrongs we’ve committed to those around us, to make amends for those wrongs, and face the new year with gratitude, and hope that we’ve been given a chance to start anew.
Bottom line: We have all sinned.
We are human.
This year, the fasting is over.
The table has been cleared.
What’s done is done.
The Book is closed.
I’ve done what I can.
I guess this is where the faith part comes in.
Now the trick is to be a better me in 5772.
Now listen to Babs sing and tell me what you feel when you hear her voice.
Stern, Chaim. Ed. Gates of Repentance: The New Union Prayerbook for the Days of Awe. 2. New York: Central Conference of American Rabbis, 1985. 313-4. Print.
© Renée Schuls-Jacobson 2011