A Gate of Intentions for the High Holy Days

A Gate of Intentions for the High Holy Days

Rabbi Sarel Rosenblatt is the Rosh Kollel of the Straus Kollel at the Joseph and Gwendolyn Straus Rabbinical Seminary 

We are now in the midst of the days of teshuva and tikkun; days of atonement, forgiveness and mercy; days of judgement and love; days of festivity and joy.  We will soon be going back and forth between the synagogue and the festive Shabbat and holiday table.  The days between the beginning of Elul and Shemini Atzeret are not considered to be one prolonged Jewish holiday; nor are they a collection of unrelated holidays.  In fact, all the days in this period of time are interconnected, forming one whole system, with a starting point and end point.  Furthermore, every holiday adds another spiritual dimension or emotional resource necessary for the success of this journey.  

Some people may view the prayers in the synagogue during these days as just another prayer service; similarly, the holiday meals around the table may be looked upon as “one more festive meal” or “one more day of rest.”  However, this is hardly the case.  Every holiday prayer has a unique component which creates a different melody; this, in turn, leads to a different form of spiritual and emotional self-calibration.  

In the following paragraphs we will attempt to present a form of internal re-tuning for the holidays of Tishrei, a spiritual guide, if you will, for the High Holy Days.  You might even call it the “Gate of Intentions” 1 for the prayers and mitzvot of the Tishrei holidays.

Our relationship with God has been described using concepts pertaining to human relationships: A king and his servants; a father and his children; a lover and his beloved.   We will try connect among all of these different forms of relationship, but will focus mainly on that of man and woman.  Furthermore, we will attempt to arrange the entire sequence of days between Elul and Shemini Atzeret in such a way that will reflect the gradual building of trust and love between the Lover and the Beloved – between God and the People of Israel.  

Elul

The month of Elul is in essence the Jewish People’s greatest secret.  Rosh Hashana is the Day of Judgement – not only for the Jewish People, but for all living creatures.  All pass before him on this day.  But it seems we are the only ones who are aware of this.  And being the good Jews that we are, we do not wait for the Day of Judgement, but start mending our ways in order to draw mercy to this world way before Judgement Day arrives.  Do not say – “When the day comes…”; rather – seize the day and let it come!  There is a halakha (Jewish law) that states that one who admits to a misdeed is exempt from paying an extra fine.  This is because we understand that when a person admits to a wrongdoing before s/he is caught by the police – this in itself is already a form of engaging in teshuva and rectification, both of which draw mercy.  We do not wait for Heaven to bring us to judgement; we are the ones that take initiative and give a full account of our actions.   Of our own accord, we call out to the King of all kings and seek to be close to Him, beseech His forgiveness and atonement.

According to Midrash Tanhuma (Ki Tisa, 31), on the first of Elul Moshe went up to the heavens to try and rebuild and revive all that had broken and shattered due to chet ha’egel (the Sin of the Golden Calf).  What can be learned from this Midrash is that our Avodat Hashem on these particular days is likened to the climbing of a steep mountain, in keeping with the verse in Psalms:  “Who shall ascend into the mountain of the LORD? and who shall stand in His holy place?”  

Notwithstanding the above, the Alter Rebbe (of Lubavitch) in his book Likutei Torah on Parshat Re’eh taught us another way to understand the month of Elul.   The King is said to be out in the field during this time and “He receives all, and embraces all warmly and graciously.”  The opportunity to forge a special relationship with the King during this period stems from the fact that Elul is an informal sort of month.  

During Elul we are not as festive and ceremonial as we are on Rosh Hashana or Yom Kippur.  When we recite the slichot prayers, we do so in the middle of the night, bleary-eyed, dressed in our everyday clothes.  No make-up.  Our simple selves, no embellishments.  But it is this specific informal atmosphere that makes for a simple, straightforward encounter between us and the King, void of the etiquette and decorum required in the King’s palace.  If we were to take it to the dimension of man and woman, this might be the perfect opportunity for the Lover and his Beloved to meet in some casual setting rather than go out on a formal date.  The uniqueness here is that on the one hand, these are no regular days – after all, there is an encounter between the Lover and his Beloved.  On the other hand, this takes place casually and informally, in a setting allowing for an unmediated encounter, which can create the magic.

Rosh Hashana

People might err as to the true nature of Rosh Hashana.  We call it The Day of Judgement, but, in fact, make no mention of our sins in the prayers; nor do we confess to our crimes or beg for atonement and forgiveness.  The Rosh Hashana prayers contain two main motifs – coronation and commemoration.  As we say in the prayers – King of all the world, He who blesses Israel and the Day of Remembrance.  

Rosh Hashana as a day of coronation directs us to think of God’s reign over this entire word, and how He rules over every living creature.  The perspective presented here is a universal one.  Since the world is ruled by a king, it is also judged in accordance with the laws of the king.  However, as far as we are concerned, the most important element is not the judgment; rather it is our readiness to acknowledge God’s kingship and make His name known in the world.  We oftentimes find it difficult to acknowledge those standing before us because we are too wrapped up in ourselves.  Crowning God as our king allows us to step out of our skins and understand that our existence in this world doesn’t only revolve around our individual story; rather, the bigger story is about making God’s name known in this world.  

This perspective can bring about remembrance.  A glimpse at the verses from the prayer that recounts past events, shows us that the main message of these verses is recalling the mutual story and long-standing relationship between God and the Jewish People. We mention Noah, Abraham, Isaac, to name but a few.  In this sense, on Rosh Hashana we do not only coronate a great King for the entire world, but this King also becomes our Father.  The great commemoration of Rosh Hashana is the outcry of the son to his Father, begging Him to remember that he is not just any other person, but His own beloved son.  

If we connect the dots, we might come to understand that Rosh Hashana is a type of betrothal.  As the verse says: “And I will betroth thee unto me forever.”  The betrothal is the moment in which we enter a covenant and become committed.  Betrothal is not the stage in which the marriage is consummated; it is not yet the time of cohabitation, but rather – forging a soul connection and entering a covenant.  This is not a covenant between two strangers, but between the Lover and the beloved.  Coronating God is a proclamation of the covenant; the recollections fill this covenant with infinite love.

Our spiritual work during the month of Elul creates a bridge that makes it possible to transition between an awe-filled coronation and a love-filled betrothal. The reason for this is that Elul presents an opportunity to meet the King in the field, smile at Him and converse with Him and thus renew the relationship and get closer.  

The Ten Days of Repentance

Immediately following the betrothal, the couple has to engage in hard and intensive work in order to build their home and their life together.  With all due respect for vows and good intentions, a lot of repair work and building is required.  As the wedding draws near, the final touches and the precision of the work have to be of the highest quality.  This is no longer a first introduction, or becoming closer in a general sort of way; no, this is ironing out all the wrinkles; sorting out the nitty-gritty and bridging the gaps.

The Shulchan Aruch (Code of Jewish Law) in the portion of Orach Chaim (603) states that someone who permits himself to eat bread baked by a non-Jew all year round should try avoiding it during the Ten Days of Repentance.  Much like a bride and groom who put in that extra effort on the days before their marriage in order to look good and find favor in each other’s eyes; not only externally, but also through actions that reflect true emotion and the desire to get closer.

Yom Kippur

Yom Kippur is the wedding day.  The are no better days for Israel than the 15th of Av and Yom Kippur, say our Sages.  And as the verse says, “Go forth, O ye daughters of Zion, and gaze upon King Solomon, even upon the crown wherewith his mother hath crowned him on the day of his marriage, and in the day of the gladness of his heart.”  The day of his marriage refers to the day the Torah was received at Sinai, says the Mishna (Ta’anit 4, 8), referring to the fact that the second pair of Luchot HaBrit (Tablets of Stone) was given on Yom Kippur.  Yom Kippur is a happy day.  It is a day of purity and atonement, achieved by the very fact that we stand before God and our close proximity to him – “Before the Lord though shall become pure.”  It is our wedding day.  The second pair of Tablets, which are the Torah, are in fact our ketubah – the marriage contract and mutual commitment between God and the Jewish People.  Furthermore, when the High Priest enters the Holy of Holies, it is much like the bride and groom entering the cheder yichud (the private room into which they go immediately after the chuppah).  Much like the charm and grace of a bridegroom, such was the appearance of the High Priest on Yom Kippur.  

We do not eat or drink on Yom Kippur, not only because it is prohibited, but also because we are very much like a bride and groom who have discovered after their first night together that they have forgotten to eat, out of sheer happiness and intimacy.  

The numerous confessions, the great big cry of The Thirteen Attributes of Mercy (yud gimmel midot) stem from the great desire to tighten the bond and fine tune the strings of the Covenant with the hope that living life under the wings of the Lord will bear good fruits and give rise to life rather than the opposite.

The Days between Yom Kippur and Sukkot

These are special days of which the Midrash says that during this time God turns a blind eye to the sins of Israel (Tanchuma on the portion of Emor, 22).  These are the days on which we wish to absorb the greatness of the day of Yom Kippur.  Building the sukkah is, in fact, a consummation of the marriage.  After all, we do not want our love to remain a platonic one.  As soon as the fast ends, we start building “the bridal home”, a type of grove in which the bridal pair sit for seven days following their wedding.  

Sukkot

The sukkah is a guest house, of sorts.  A bridal home.  According to Ha’ARI Hakadosh of blessed memory (Sha’ar HaKavanot, teachings on Sukkot, 4), the sukkah – a structure with two full side walls and a third wall that may be partial (10 cm) – is reminiscent of an embrace: the upper arm, the forearm and the hand.  God envelopes us on all sides.  The schach – the foliage covering the sukkah – is the shade provided by the Shechina, the Divine Presence.  For seven whole days we live our lives and follow our daily routines (the mitzvah of Sukkah is fulfilled by eating, drinking, sleeping and spending time in the sukkah) – the only difference is that it is with the presence of God.  

There is a halakha that says (Shulchan Aruch, Even HaEzer 62, 7) that the sheva brachot – the seven blessings recited each day of the week following a couple’s marriage – depends on the presence of a “new face” i.e. somebody who was not present at the wedding.  Likewise, on Sukkot we welcome a new “guest” every single day – the ushpizin.  But not only do the ushpizin drop by for a visit to rejoice with the bride and groom – all living creatures come to pay their respects, as is written in the Talmud (tractate of Sukkah 55:2): On Sukkot 70 bulls were brought up as offering in the Temple, symbolizing the 70 nations of the world.  It follows then that the very same people upon whom we wished to crown God King on Rosh Hashana, are those who come to rejoice with us on Sukkot.  This is the reason that Sukkot is called the Time of our Rejoicing. And, indeed, it is the festival of happiness.  

Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah

The Talmud (ibid.) describes the Eighth Day (from the start of Sukkot) as the day following the grand party with the myriads of guests.  The Eight Day is the day the Lover and the Beloved are finally alone.  It is when the bride and groom go back to their natural environment, their home, but it is still a moment before daily routine resumes.  A little pause. In Hebrew it’s called atzeret, from the root “to stop and pause.”  Indeed, it is a moment to stop, breathe and internalize the entire process.  It is a moment to reflect upon the rendezvous with King in the field two months earlier, a moment that lead to building a relationship based on goodwill and mercy; a relationship that matured into a coronation, a betrothal and an attempt to finetune our actions and achieve rectification.  

It is a moment to reflect upon the day of marriage on which we were able to achieve purity and atonement through great closeness.  A day on which the intense love was so great that it sought to build a home and enable the great Divine light to fill the simple mundane vessels of our lives.  A moment to reflect upon all the visitors from all over the world, of whom the Torah says that all the peoples of the earth shall be blessed through us.  On this Eighth Day of reflection, we merit to dance a little more, this time with a Sefer Torah.  We remember that the Torah is the very essence of our lives; the supporting pillar that maintains this relationship.  “Let us rejoice in the Torah; it is our strength; it is our light.”

The day after…

The day which closes this journey is not Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah, nor is it isru chag (the day following a festival); rather, it is the next day.  The day we get back to our routine. The objective of this great voyage to the peaks of spirituality and sanctity is not to dwell there permanently, but to draw the heavenly abundance and blessing into our mundane lives and daily routines; to enhance our family life, our workplace and our encounters with people; to engage in business in good faith and to pray with greater devotion.  Much like two good friends venturing on a two-month journey to the Himalayas and encountering both moments of joy as well as challenges.  Upon their return from the voyage, it is apparent to all that a certain bond exists between them, one which is difficult to describe in words; so profound and unique is this connection, that when they reunite after a long separation – this deep bond is still apparent.  This is the feeling we should be taking with us when Tishrei comes to an end – such should be the bond between God and ourselves.  

So which scene from this two-month journey would you choose to hang on your wall?  Which scenery from this voyage do you wish to cherish in your heart?  What are your deepest aspirations?

This article was written as part of the “Journeys” series for Tishrei 5782

  1.   Also the name of a book by the HaARI HaKadosh dealing with the intentions one should have during prayer and when fulfilling the commandments, especially those pertaining to the Jewish Festivals. 
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