Liberating Life

The High Holidays focus on death so that we may renew our lives.

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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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Rabbi Irving Greenberg

Rabbi Irving (Yitz) Greenberg was the president of Jewish Life Network/Steinhardt Foundation and founding president of CLAL, the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership. He also is the author of For the Sake of Heaven and Earth: The New Encounter Between Judaism and Christianity (2004, Jewish Publication Society).