Last year on Yom Kippur, Yossi Gottlieb arrived at shul early during the break between Musaf and Minhah and frantically ran towards the rabbi. Without warning, Yossi grabbed the rabbi to ask him a question. “Rabbi,” he began. “If I don’t drink anything right now, I’m not gonna make it through Yom Kippur! What do I do?” The rabbi was a bit taken aback by Yossi’s state of panic and said calmly, “Well, if you really think you’re not going to be able to last through the holiday, pikkuach nefesh—caring for your well-being—will have to take precedence over the fast. You should probably go get something to drink.” With that, Yossi Gottlieb ran out of the sanctuary, took a sip from the nearest water fountain, and ran back into the sanctuary. “Thank you, Rabbi!” he said. “I tell you though: that’s the last time I’m having salted herring and schnapps at lunch on Yom Kippur!”
I guess it’s important to think ahead of time what it is that we want to get out of the High Holidays. And I have to admit that I don’t always love the High Holidays. I think they’re important, and I support them. I like the Nosah—the melodies that we sing over the Holidays—and I think it’s a wonderful thing that we get these opportunities during the year to see the entire Jewish community gathered together for a sacred purpose. Because all of us who are here tonight are at a regular Shabbat service with an average-sized crowd, I don’t know if I am about to preach to the choir when I say this, but I worry about a Jew who will only attend services when that Jew has bought a ticket to attend services. My concern isn’t whether it’s right for a shul to charge for High Holiday tickets, and my concern isn’t the price of the ticket, but my concern is whether the High Holidays inherently are a success or not.
Many of us have been taught at some point—more or less—that the point of the High Holidays is for us Jews to repent sincerely for all of the sins that we have committed in the past year so that God will write us in the Book of Life. Except for today on Shabbat Shuvah (the Shabbat between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur), during Aseret Yemey Teshuvah, the Ten Days of Repentance—that is, the days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur—we repent for our sins in the morning and we recite twice a day, “Avinu malkenu, kotvenu besefer hayyim tovim” (literally, “Our Father, our King, inscribe us in the book of good life”).
I do not believe that it is wrong to repent on these days. In fact, I agree that it is great for us to repent on these days. Also, I don’t believe it’s wrong for us to ask God to deal with us kindly. In fact, I think it’s good for the Jews to have a little backbone and to ask God to have a little mercy on us. My question is though: why do we ask so much for mercy and repent so much on the High Holidays and during these days of Aseret Yemey Teshuvah? After all, when we Jews pray everyday, we repent and ask for mercy every day: just in fewer words. In the Daily Amidah, we recite a passage called Selihah (“Forgiveness”) that goes as follows:
סְלַח־לָֽנוּ, אָבִֽינוּ, כִּי חָטָֽאנוּ.
Literally: Forgive us, our Father, for we have sinned.
מְחַל־לָֽנוּ, מַלְכֵּֽנוּ, כִּי פָשָֽׁעְנוּ.
Pardon us, our King, for we have transgressed.
כִּי מוֹחֵל וְסוֹלֵֽחַ אָֽתָּה, בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה ה‘, חַנּוּן הַמַּרְבֶּה לִסְלֹֽחַ.
As you pardon and forgive: Blessed are You Adonai graciously abundant in forgiveness!
And we also recite in that same Amidah:
שְׁמַע קוֹלֵֽנוּ, ה‘ אֱ-לֹהֵֽינוּ,
Hear our voice, Adonai our God,
חוּס וְרַחֵם עָלֵֽינוּ,
Have pity and be compassionate towards us,
וְקַבֵּל בְּרַחֲמִים וּבְרָצוֹן אֶת־תְּפִלָּתֵֽנוּ,
Accept compassionately and willingly our prayers,
כִּי אֵ-ל שׁוֹמֵֽעַ תְּפִלּוֹת וְתַחֲנוּנִים אָֽתָּה,
For You are the God who hears prayers and pleas!
וּמִלְּפָנֶֽיךָ, מַלְכֵּֽנוּ, רֵיקָם אַל תְּשִׁיבֵֽנוּ.
From before You, may we not leave empty-handed.
כִּי אַתָּה שׁוֹמֵֽעַ תְּפִלַּת עַמְּךָ יִשְׂרָאֵל בְּרַחֲמִים.
As You listen to the prayer of your nation Israel with compassion,
בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה ה‘, שׁוֹמֵֽעַ תְּפִלָּה.
Blessed are You Adonai, who hears our prayer.
Now, if we look at the prayers that we say on the High Holidays, I’ll admit that there’s some beautiful poetry that we recite that definitely beats those paragraphs of prose that we say during the rest of the year. What we say year-round is nice, but maybe the prayers on the High Holidays are even more powerful. But I still wonder: why so many more prayers on the High Holidays? A weekday Minhah service can take about 15 minutes, and Yom Kippur services can altogether feel like almost 15 hours.
In the Parashah that we read tomorrow, Ha’azinu, we approach the end of Sefer Devarim, the book of Deuteronomy. The majority of Sefer Devarim consists of one long, final speech that Moses gave to the Israelites. By the way, if we ever think that a High Holiday sermon feels long, we should think about our poor Israelite ancestors who listened to some guy without a microphone recite just about an entire book in the desert while standing—probably because none of the Israelites paid for tickets for their seats while they were in the desert. Anyway, in Ha’azinu—which literally means “Listen!”—we find out that some Israelites didn’t listen so well when it came to listening to God. In fact, we read Moses reminding the Israelites all the great things that God did for them. But we come across a strange passage where Moses really emphasizes that God did these things:1
ה֖’ בָּדָ֣ד יַנְחֶ֑נּוּ וְאֵ֥ין עִמּ֖וֹ אֵ֥ל נֵכָֽר:
The Lord alone guided Israel; there is no alien god alongside our God.
Saying ve’eyn immo el nekhar, “There is no alien god alongside our God,” feels a little bit out of context here. The rest of the passage is just Moses talking about things that God did for us. But, why would Moses suddenly tell us that God is our only helpful God? Hadn’t the Israelites heard by now that Biblical verse, “Shema yisra’el adonai eloheinu adonay ehad”—“Hear Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One!?” It sounds like the Israelites forgot one of those basics of Judaism! Just a bit before this, we read of Moses talking to the Israelites as if they’ve experienced memory loss or have just forgotten their history:
זְכֹר֙ יְמ֣וֹת עוֹלָ֔ם
Remember the days of old;
בִּ֖ינוּ שְׁנ֣וֹת דֹּר וָדֹ֑ר
Consider those years of generations past.
שְׁאַ֤ל אָבִ֨יךָ֙ וְיַגֵּ֔דְךָ
Ask your father, and he’ll tell you about God.
זְקֵנֶ֖יךָ וְיֹ֥אמְרוּ לָֽךְ:
Ask your elders and they’ll say this to you:
בְּהַנְחֵ֤ל עֶלְיוֹן֙ גּוֹיִ֔ם
When the God On High gave nations their land
בְּהַפְרִיד֖וֹ בְּנֵ֣י אָדָ֑ם
And divided up humans,
יַצֵּב֙ גְּבֻלֹ֣ת עַמִּ֔ים
God On High established boundaries for the peoples
לְמִסְפַּ֖ר בְּנֵ֥י יִשְׂרָאֵֽל:
Equal to Israel’s numbers.2
Moses started off this piece pretty nicely saying “Ask your parents and your grandparents about God and they’ll tell you about God,” but then Moses paraphrases the Israelites’ parents and grandparents telling the Israelites something a little confusing: that “When God On High gave nations their land and divided up humans, God on High established boundaries for the peoples equal to Israel’s numbers.” That kinda sounds like there are as many nations as there are Israelites, and, if those nations are going to believe in a legitimate god, then they’ll believe in our God. So, our Torah at Midway3 says this problematic thing too, but the modern biblical scholar Jeffrey Tigay tells us that this passage is read slightly differently in older manuscripts of this biblical text.4 Instead of saying at the end “lemispar beney yisra’el” (“equal to the number of Israelites”), some older texts5 read “lemispar beney elohim,” “equal to the number of divine beings.” This older text acknowledges that not everybody is Jewish, and other peoples are legitimate with legitimate gods too: a god for each people. So, when we read in this same Parashah— “ve’eyn el nekhar immo,”—that “there is no alien god working alongside our God,” that word “immo” (“alongside God”) is the key word of that sentence. There are many gods in the world, but we have only One who will do all the things that God will do for us.
That there is only One God for us is something that the Israelites apparently forgot. Jeffrey Tigay also notes that, when we read that verse about God dividing up the nations of the world according to their own gods, the word that Moses uses there for God, “elyon,” is really similar to a word that non-Israelites would also use for one particular god in Phoenician mythology; this god was known as “eliuom.”
When it comes to universal ethics or to universal ideas about spirituality, we tend to forget about our own values and ideas that we, exclusively as Jews, possess. “Elyon” and “eliuom” sound really similar. The process of praising “Elyon” and of praising “eliuom” may in fact be very similar: recite a psalm, or maybe—back in the day—you’d bring a sacrifice… But we probably incant words to “Elyon” we would never say to “eliuom,” and we would probably offer each one a different sacrifice. In fact, though we may think we’re serving the Divine by serving either “Elyon” or or “eliuom,” we are dealing with two different conceptions of God in the end. Through “Elyon,” we maintain a connection with the Divine through an exclusively Jewish language; to access “eliuom,” you don’t need to be a Member Of the Tribe. But, since “Eliuom” and “Elyon” sound similar, it’s easy to mix up “Eliuom” and “Elyon.” Nonetheless, we cannot lose our Yiddische Kopf—our Jewish instincts and our Jewish identity. We cannot lose our distinctly Jewish character—our rituals, our customs, our laws, our philosophies and our unique heritage from the God of Israel.
As Jews who are immersed daily in a world of secular culture, we can easily get our values confused. We need the High Holidays not because they’re the only days when we act upon our values, but because these are great days for re-evaluating our values. Sometimes we lose sight of our original goals. We fortunately live in a secular culture wherein we frequently do aim for the good. But we don’t always define the “good” as “good in the eyes of God”—and then, we don’t always know our God and what our God wants. Yet, when we engage in daily activities, nearly all of us do have this goal of doing something “good”—whether it’s serving a greater good through social action or entertaining ourselves with a good show on television; these are both good things. But, when we strive for the “good” on a daily basis, after a year, our memory of our original goals might get a little rusty, and we need to re-evaluate them, dust them up, and go back to square one.
For Jews, square one is the square of One. The square of One is One; shema yisra’el adonai eloheinu adonai ehad: Hear, Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One. By returning to the Square One of God, we can define what is right and wrong for us as people of God, and we can define the ways in which we can striving for a Godly good every day for an entire year.
We can ask for forgiveness every day in the Amidah because nobody’s perfect and we all make mistakes. But when it comes to the High Holidays, we recall and redefine for ourselves those moments when we get things right and those times when we miss the mark. We daily strive for the good, but on the High Holidays, we renew for ourselves our distinctly Jewish definitions of “good” and “bad.” And even if we work every day of the year towards a Divine understanding of the “good,” can we necessarily be in that same Divine state of mind a year after we set aside our goals? On the High Holidays, we can check in, and we can review.
Our Divine contract is never up. The Torah makes demands of us on a daily basis, and it is our task to seek God and the good on a daily basis. God’s given us some work to do, and we have to check in regularly that we’re getting it right. We have to reread the Covenant each year and reconsider the stipulations.
On the High Holidays, we read some of the most important fine print: the 13 attributes of God’s Mercy, the binding of Isaac, desperate pleas for forgiveness, and much, much more. Sometimes we forget things—even those that are most important to us. So every year, on the High Holidays, we remind ourselves: who is our God, what is “good,” and what are our concrete goals? If we ignore these questions, we could forget our conditions in the contract with our Boss Elyon. But if we can answer these questions well every year, then we can better answer our Divine need in this world on a daily basis. When we answer these questions honestly and meaningfully, the High Holidays assure us that, through the remainder of our year, what we think of as good is what really is good, that what we set out to do each day is for our the purpose of the good, and that the God we serve is the God we know: Elyon—not Eliuom. On the High Holidays, we pray not only that we will be inscribed besefer hayyim tovim—in the book of the good life—but that we can refresh our memories and consciously renew our lifelong contracts with the Divine.
Listen: Revising a Definition of “Elyon” On the High Holidays