Rosh Hashanah, the head of the Jewish year, begins at sunset this Wednesday night. It's a joyous time, with many beautiful melodies and the sound of the shofar wafting through the synagogue sanctuary, which is filled with friends and neighbors I might not see more than a few times a year. There are folk customs like eating apples dipped in honey and casting the failures of the past year into the river in a ceremony called tashlich. Even Jews who are not religiously inclined tend to get together with family and friends to celebrate the season.
Yet for many thoughtful Jews, the festivity of the new year is overshadowed by Yom Kippur, the day of atonement, that falls ten days later. Many of us don't know what to do with this holiday. It is not that we think we are so perfect. We are acutely aware of our failures to live up to our highest ideals. Judaism also stresses tikkun olam, the repair and perfection of the world, so it is not only our personal shortfalls that weigh on our conscience at this time: we feel responsible for the planet!
With such a highly tuned sense of moral responsibility, some Jews find a whole day when we focus on repenting for our sins of omission and commission unbearable. I have felt this way, some years in my life. If you are struggling to be joyous this new year, knowing that Yom Kippur looms ahead, I have one thing to say to you:
"Then the Lord said to Moses, 'I have pardoned them, just like you asked."
Where do we see this line in the liturgy? During the Kol Nidre service, the very first set of prayers at sunset on the eve of Yom Kippur! We spend the next twenty-seven hours searching our souls and praying (mostly as a community) for forgiveness and the power to do better, knowing that we are already forgiven!
This might seem illogical to those who think of God as a divine scorekeeper, counting points in favor and points against each person. To me, it makes the deepest sense. It reflects my understanding that God never forsakes us and always wants to see us do better. On Yom Kippur, one day a year, we stress the aspect of God as judge--but that is within a year-round understanding that God and we are loving partners, engaged in a great work together. God needs us as we need God. We are all going on together after Yom Kippur.
If that is too serious for you, then please take the words of Heinrich Heine to heart instead: "God will pardon me. It's his business."
A good, sweet year to all.