From Estrangement to Reconciliation: The Spiritual Journey of the High Holidays

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September 1, 2002
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By Shoshana Gelfand

All too often, human beings have the sad tendency of confusing destinations with journeys. For example, we sometimes confuse the wedding ceremony with the relationship, or the job promotion with the satisfaction of the work. While weddings and promotions are important milestones, they are simply moments in time along a complex and rich journey.

Annually, the Jewish community engages in a group spiritual journey punctuated by holiday celebrations that frame our communal milestones. The Jewish holidays outline our journey as a people and give us a public forum to narrate our shared story.

Rosh Hashana is but one station on a much longer spiritual journey. That journey begins with the days leading up to Tisha B’Av and culminates in the celebration of Simhat Torah. We move from being utterly estranged from God to being forgiven, reconciled, and reunited by the end of the holiday cycle. Along the way, we re-experience such historical events as the sin of the Golden Calf and the incident of the Spies. We also reenact the reconciliation of our ancestors with God. The richness of Rosh Hashana is more thoroughly understood when experienced in the context of the larger journey, which begins with the 17th of Tammuz, and continues with the Nine Days, Tisha B’Av, the Seven Weeks of Comfort, Elul, Rosh Hashana (the first of Tishrei), Yom Kippur and the ten days leading up to it, Sukkot, Shmini Atzeret, and Simhat Torah.

The 17th of Tammuz

On this day, we committed the sin of “communal adultery,” declaring that it was not God who redeemed us from Egypt, but a Golden Calf. When Moses comes down the mountain with the tablets containing the Torah, he realizes that we, the Jewish people, had already broken the newly formed Covenant with God. We were not yet ready for such an intimate relationship. So Moses smashes the first set of tablets and goes back up the mountain to try and obtain forgiveness for us.

The 17th of Tammuz is also the day, several thousand years later, when the walls of Jerusalem are breached and the massacre within the city begins. Because this day marks the beginning of such a period of distance from God, many Jews take on certain practices associated with mourning beginning with the 17th of Tammuz and continuing through the three weeks leading to Tisha B’Av.

The Nine Days
Beginning with the month of Av, the days leading up to Tisha B’Av mark an increase in mourning customs (no shaving or eating meat) as we anticipate the upcoming destruction of the Temple, the result of our distancing ourselves from God and mitzvot.

Tisha B’Av
Not only does Tisha B’Av commemorate the destruction of the Temple, but it also is the anniversary of the Sin of the Spies. Since the Temple represents our closeness to God and God’s desire to dwell with us, the loss of the Temple marks the moment that God abandons us and we are left utterly alone. This parallels the historical event of the spies’ false report to Joshua concerning our ability to conquer the Land of Israel. Both of these events – the loss of the Temple and the unwillingness to fully embrace the Land that God wanted to give us – mark a low point for the Jewish people in terms of our relationship with God. This is so devastating that we spend the day mourning and crying. Just as one cannot think of food or sex when a loved one dies, so too, on Tisha B’Av, we don’t engage in these life affirming acts, but rather feel the pain of losing God and our Land.

Seven Weeks of Comfort
Immediately following Tisha B’Av, we begin reading the seven haftorot of comfort. Devastated at our estrangement from God, we need to be comforted and reminded that it is in our power to change and repair that relationship.

Elul
With the beginning of Elul (the month preceding Rosh Hashana), we start the self-reflective process of teshuvah (returning) to God. We look inward and question how we managed to become so disconnected from God. Each morning during Elul, we blow the shofar and say selichot prayers in an effort to change our ways and reconnect with God and with the moral people that we are capable of being.

Rosh Hashana – First of Tishrei
By the time the new year arrives, we have engaged in enough self-reflection that we are able to focus on the three themes of Rosh Hashana: malchuyot (God’s sovereignty), zichronot (Remembrance of the Covenant with God) and shofrot (God’s Revelation and promise of Redemption). Because of our experience of losing God during Tisha B’Av, we are able during Rosh Hashana to verbalize in malchuyot just how important it is to us that God reign over the universe – that there be some purpose and meaning to life that is larger than our day-to-day mundane existence. Our journey from Tisha B’Av has also taught us how much we value our covenantal relationship with God, and how much we want that closeness back, the way things were before we sinned with the Golden Calf and the Spies. When we hear the shofar blown, we are reminded of the intimacy of the revelation at Sinai and the hope of a future blowing of the shofar at the final redemption. Rosh Hashana thereby reawakens in us the hope that we can once again accept God’s Covenant, repair our relationship, and return to the way things were before we committed the sin of the Golden Calf.

The Ten Days –
Between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, we have an opportunity to move toward reconciliation. This applies equally to relationships with other people and with God. Of course, there is no way to reconcile with God until we have made amends with those made in God’s image. Therefore, we spend these ten days engaged in teshuva – admitting our sins, apologizing to those we have hurt, and trying to repair what we have broken. As we repair our human relationships and draw closer to each other, we simultaneously open the possibility for reconciliation with God.

Yom Kippur – 10th of Tishrei
The Day of Atonement raises the question of whether we will be forgiven and reunited with God (with whom we have been distanced since the 17th of Tammuz). Like on Tisha B’Av, we fast and refrain from sexual relations in an attempt to focus on evaluating human actions of physical desire. We reflect on how we, as human beings, can act in ways that will bring God closer instead of driving God away. In addition, we confess our sins and admit our wrongdoings. Finally, we reenact the ancient Avodah service in the hope that, just as God forgave our ancestors when the Temple stood, so too we will be forgiven now, and God will once again choose to dwell with us. Yom Kippur is the day, according to tradition, when Moses descended from Mount Sinai with the second set of tablets, thereby signifying God’s forgiveness of us for the Golden Calf. While God forgives us for that sin, however, it still remains to be seen whether God will agree to dwell with us in the tabneracle or not.

Sukkot –

Four days after Yom Kippur, we build a hut and live in it for a week, reminding ourselves of the time when we wandered through the desert with God as our only companion. Sukkot is a joyous holiday – z’man simhateynu – where despite the frailty of our shelter and the uncertainty of the structures that we build, we rejoice that God has forgiven us and may once again share in our lives. While the sukkah reminds us of the huts we lived in while wandering in the desert, it also is reminiscent of the portable tabernacle that we built for God. The building of the tabernacle was the tikkun, the repair, for the sin of the Golden Calf. The Israelites brought their gold and offerings and voluntarily contributed to build the mishkan, the tabernacle, the place that God could dwell in their midst.

The sensuousness of Sukkot demonstrates a marked contrast to the asceticism of Yom Kippur. On Sukkot, we reaffirm our bodies and our senses as the human locus by which we actualize God’s will in this world. Sukkot proves that we can choose to use our human drives to build not a Golden Calf, but rather a tabernacle to bring God closer to us.

Shmini Atzeret / Simhat Torah –
This holiday, which is usually perceived as an afterthought to Sukkot, is actually the climax of this entire spiritual journey. Shmini Atzeret invokes dedication imagery. Just as Solomon dedicated the Temple on the 8th day, so too does Shmini Atzeret become a dedication holiday, an “Eighth Day of Assembly.” It is almost as if, during Sukkot, we build a Tabernacle for God and rejoice in the anticipation of God’s arrival. We invite guests, both living and mythic, into our Sukkah each day as we wait for God to arrive as well. Then, on Shmini Atzeret, we leave our Sukkat to make room for God’s presence to fill it completely. This is the moment of truth: Will God dwell with us and thereby mark the repair of this relationship? Realizing that God has truly forgiven us and agreed to live amongst us again, we are overjoyed and express that joy on Simhat Torah through dancing with the Torah. The wedding imagery of Simhat Torah is an entirely appropriate marking of the end of the journey that began with the sin of the Golden Calf on the 17th of Tammuz. We have moved from estrangement to reconciliation with God and our joy overflows.

Each milestone on this journey from the 17th of Tammuz to Simhat Torah is an important step in rebuilding our relationship with God. Too often, Jews find Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur to be empty and meaningless days. In and of themselves, these two or three days are not transformative. They are but milestones along a complex path leading toward reconciliation with God. When taken as part of a two-month journey, a highly orchestrated dance with God, the high holidays can be important milestones as we move toward a deeper and more powerful relationship with God.

May we all find meaning and depth as we journey together this High Holiday season, as we attempt to not mistake the milestones along the way for the journey itself.

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Rabbi Shoshana Gelfand, a Sh'ma Advisory Board Member, is the Vice President of the Wexner Heritage Foundation. The idea for this article came from her experience leading High Holiday services at the University of Colorado Hillel in Boulder.

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