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Asking the Clergy: Why are the Jewish High Holidays so important?

Rabbi Perry Raphael Rank of the Midway Jewish

Rabbi Perry Raphael Rank of the Midway Jewish Center Photo Credit: NEWSDAY / KEN SPENCER

Rosh Hashana, commonly known as the Jewish New Year, begins at sunset on Sunday, Oct. 2. It’s the start of the High Holidays, which end with Yom Kippur (The Day of Atonement), celebrated Oct. 11-12, the most sacred observance of the Jewish calendar. This week’s clergy discuss why those 10 Days of Repentance are also known as the Days of Awe.

Rabbi Perry Raphael Rank,Midway Jewish Center, a Conservative Jewish congregation, Syosset:

America loves a good courtroom drama; the courtroom is an outstanding arena for two parties to battle for justice. What makes these dramas riveting is the uncertainty of the outcome. The viewer may know who ought to win the case or be acquitted, but will the prosecution offer such evidence that turns the whole case on its head? Who knows? That’s suspense. And this, perhaps, is the reason why the Days of Awe are so named. The Jewish people begin the New Year in court, the prosecutors on high charging not only the Jewish people, but all people on earth, with their shortcomings and failures. Scary. But the defendants (that’s us) are not defenseless. To our aid come a myriad of our past good deeds, there before the Judge of the Universe to mitigate our wrongdoings and restore our good names. Knowing that God tempers justice with mercy, we pray to be cleansed of past sins and promise better decisions in the New Year. This sacred fantasy is a fantasy of the highest moral order. The Jewish people greet another year of life with a stark reminder: We are all accountable to a greater authority. It is not enough to refrain from harm; we must actively do good. It is not enough to hide behind the legal; we must strive to do what is moral. Our ethics report card is something for us and God to work through. That’s really tough work. And that’s what makes Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur awesome.

Rabbi Mendy Goldberg,Lubavitch of the East End, Coram:

What does “awe” mean? How do we feel it? In today’s day and age, we can purchase a house, car, find a job or a marriage partner, all just using our phone. What is much more difficult to find is a source of authority in our lives. What we lack in our lives is awe. There are, of course, plenty of people out there who are prepared to tell us what to do, from dictators, to your favorite psychologist, pundit or fashion guru. But at the end of the day, it’s not the authority we are looking for. There still remains a sense of hollowness. True authority is absolute. It commands, not advises. At the same time, it is not something imposed upon us, for it is something we feel with our soul. It is something to which we want to submit wholly and unequivocally because we recognize it as the voice of our deepest self.

On Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, we devote these days to the search for the voice of authority we so deeply crave, for the king of the universe. Look for Him in your deepest self: in the things that no one has to tell you, because you already know them absolutely; your true will. When the shofar sounds, close your eyes, hear the trumpet blasts and imagine yourself in the midst of a crowd that expresses submitting to an authority that embodies its own deepest strivings and aspirations.

Cantor Irene Failenbogen,The New Synagogue of Long Island, Brookville:

The period of the 10 days including Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur is called in Hebrew the Yamim Noraim (Days of Awe). Also, they can be called the Ten Days of Repentance (Aseret Yemei Teshuvah). These two names are very symbolic and interconnected. The word “awe” implies that we will experience something beyond this world, something humbling but marvelous, anticipated and exhausting, a “high” that will last the whole year ahead. For me, being a cantor in my native Buenos Aires, Argentina, was an incredible feeling of spiritual and artistic growth. I led my first Days of Awe services at age 18. I was the first woman cantor in a Conservative Synagogue called “Hebraica” on the outskirts of Buenos Aires. For a cantor, the whole experience of awe starts with the first note that we sing until the final Tekiah Gedolah (the longest sound of the shofar) symbolizing the conclusion of the Yom Kippur service. As cantors, we represent the congregation before God, and we ask for forgiveness and healing as one. Personally, I am always praying for vocal strength and endurance to carry the musical journey of these precious moments. In Argentina, the High Holidays fall in the spring. The streets are radiating a spirit of hope. I remember the awe I felt seeing the tremendous gathering of congregants and singing those ancient, timeless and awakening prayers. Some 30 years later, in The New Synagogue of Long Island, I am still approaching these Yamim Noraim with the same open heart, vulnerable and trembling before my fellow humans and before God.

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