The High Holidays focus on death so that we may renew our lives.
Reprinted with permission from The Jewish Way (Touchstone).
Judaism's general response to the fact of death is to fight back. Life is given the highest priority. All but three laws of the Torah are overruled to save a life from death. The physician is commanded to heal. Even partial triumphs--a sickness cured, some months of life snatched from the domain of death--constitute a fulfillment of the command.
When someone dies, the mourner steps forward and, through recitation of the Kaddish, testifies that this family has not yielded to the crushing defeat. In effect, the survivors pledge to carry on, for the deceased as well as for themselves in the army of the Lord, among the soldiers of life. In essence, the Kaddish prayer affirms that God's kingdom of total perfection and total life will be brought speedily into being, preferably in this very lifetime.
The one notable exception to the arm's-length treatment of death is the period of the High Holy Days. During this cluster of days, this tradition deliberately concentrates the individual's attention on death.
Daily Gift of Life
Human beings cannot be mature until they encompass a sense of their own mortality. To recognize the brevity of human existence gives urgency and significance to the totality of life. To confront death without being overwhelmed, driven to evasions, or dulling the senses is to be given life again as a daily gift. People generally experience this gift through a trauma: an accident or a critical illness or the death of someone close. Too often the encounter fades as the presence of death recedes and the round of normal life becomes routine reality. In the Jewish calendar, the Yamim Noraim (Days of Awe) structure the imaginative encounter with death into an annual experience in the hope that the experience will recur to liberate life continually....
In the period of the High Holy Days, tradition guides the individual to take up the challenge of death on three levels. One is to deal with the constant gradual, partial encroachment of death in one's own life. Life is also a process of dying. Routine and stagnation are forms of death in life. People often stop growing long before they are recognized as dead. Such a "dead" person cannot be an agent of redemption. The tradition holds that the key to vital living is perpetual renewal of life; it seeks to attain that renewal by generating a continual process of examining life and constant rebirth. The awareness of being judged for life and death is a stimulus to stop living routinely.
The second level of the challenge is to deal with encountering abrupt, total death itself. Starting before and going through this period, the Jew focuses on the vulnerability of life and the limits of the human. People rediscover that "our entire life is God's mercy; by miracle we stand--but miracles may not happen every day" [in the words of Rabbi Israel Salanter, a leading 19th-century traditionalist thinker].
The encounter with nonexistence is set off by the awareness of creation. Whatever is born, dies. By tradition, Rosh Hashanah is the "birthday" of the world or of humanity This birthday--that is, New Year's Day--is not the occasion for a party to wipe out the passage of time in the oblivion of celebration but a time for taking stock. The possibility of non-being leads one to the questions: What is it all worth? What has been accomplished? By what merit does it still stand?
The Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur liturgies focus on creation and on God as Creator and Ruler of the universe. "To say of the world that it is created is to say that it is not its own ground but proceeds from a will and a plan beyond itself... . [To say it is not created is to say that] the world at every moment is the last word about itself and measuredby nothing but itself. "
In Jewish tradition, creation also implies the goodness of the world: "And God saw everything that God had made and, behold, it was very good" (Genesis 1:31). In other words, the controversy over whether the world is created is less a theological argument than a moral one: The concept of creation teaches that this is a world of divine purpose, a universe of value and meaning. Human beings can be judged by the standard of creation. Are they acting in consonance with the fact that this is a universe with value, purpose and meaning?
From the combined themes of death and of judgment comes the central image underlying the Days of Awe: the trial. Jews envision a trial in which the individual stands before the One who knows all. One's life is placed on the balance scales. A thorough assessment is made: Is my life contributing to the balance of life? Or does the net effect of my actions tilt the scale toward death? My life is being weighed; I am on trial for my life. Who shall live and who shall die? This image jolts each person into a heightened awareness of the fragility of life. This question poses the deeper issue: If life ended now, would it have been worthwhile? Is one aware and grateful for the miracle of daily existence?
The trial image captures the sense of one's life being in someone else's hands. The shofar of Rosh Hashanah proclaims that the Judge before whom there is no hiding is now sitting on the bench. Sharpened self-awareness, candid self-judgment, and guilt are activated by the possibility that a death sentence may be handed down. Like standing before a firing squad, a trial for life wonderfully concentrates the mind.
Then, the High Holy Days move to meet the third challenge of mortality--to harness death into a force for life. On Yom Kippur, Jews enact death by denying themselves the normal human pleasures. It is not a morbid experience, however, because this encounter with death is in the service of life. The true goal is a new appreciation of life.
To know how fragile the shell of life is, is to learn to handle it with true grace and delicacy. Only one who realizes the vulnerability of loved ones can treasure every moment with them. The encounter with death turns the individual toward life. Death can only be opposed by life just as death-in-life can only be opposed by growing in life. Instead of standing there, letting death constantly invade life, Judaism strikes back by raiding the realm of death and turning this encounter into a spur to life.
The climax comes in living out death on Yom Kippur. On this day, traditional Jews put on a kittel, a white robe similar to the shroud worn when one is buried. The life processes of eating, drinking, washing, and sexuality are stopped for 24 hours. Guilt (in the form of confession), encounter with the dead (in Yizkor memorial prayers), and the final trial judgment dominate the days. But then relief from sin emerges on Yom Kippur. God forgives! "The Lord your God will open your heart and your children's hearts. . . for the sake of giving you life!" (Deuteronomy 30:6).
This is why the tone of the Days of Awe is basically hopeful, even joyful. This is why the liturgy bursts with life. "Remember us for life, King who loves life; write us in the book of life, for your sake, Lord of Life."
Renewal of Love
This period seeks nothing less than the removal of sin and the renewal of love. Those who confront their own guilt and failure in human and divine relationships--in the context of community oneness and divine forgiveness--can correct errors, develop new patterns, and renew life. "For I do not desire the death of the wicked, but that he turn from his paths--and live." To turn is to be reborn. The people of Israel come out of Yom Kippur reborn. Forgiven and pure, at one with God.
One final comment should be made about the emotional mood of these days. Obviously in their focus on death, the High Holy Days are one-sided. The Torah seeks to present the full range of human emotion, from ecstatic joy to deepest depression. Life includes success as well as failure. There is a time for ambition and a time for sense of limit. Some experiences come only with unselfconscious living, others only out of self-criticism and guilt.
The Yamim Noraim, then, are a "distortion" unless they are taken together with Sukkot and the rest of the Jewish tradition. In the sometimes-delirious joy of Sukkot, with its celebration of harvest, of life-giving water, of goods, and of the produce of the field, are the complementary experiences of affirmation of human pleasure and achievement. The days of Sukkot are the response to the denial and self-criticism of the High Holy Days. The two periods together give one the capacity to live through triumph and tragedy, aware that this, too, shall pass. Life in all its bewildering and uncontrollable variety becomes possible.
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