Approaching the High Holy Days as Jews…or as People

September 2, 2012 12:26 pm 0 comments

Shofar at demonstration for Israel in Prague, 2009. Photo: Martin Kozák.

The start of the Jewish New Year, the month of Tishrei, is filled with holy days, among them four foundational celebrations: Rosh haShanah, Yom haKippurim, Sukkot and Simchat Torah-Shemini Atzeret. They are as different from one another as possible. Yet, we may also think of all four holidays as two pairs of two. The first two– the day of memory and accounting and the day of atonement – are awe-inspiring and grave compared with the last two festivals, which are days of joy.

At the same time, the first three holidays do have a common denominator:  as much as these are Jewish holidays, they carry a universal message.  Here, embedded within them, are three of humanity’s cardinal touchstones:  accounting and judgment; mercy and atonement; and the joy of life.

These attributes and qualities are essential to the lives of every human being. We mark the New Year by commemorating creation on the one hand, and celebrating the Kingship of the Lord on the other. Both creation and God’s sovereignty pertain to all humankind and are not specifically Jewish.

The Day of Atonement, too, is relevant to every human being. Life is full of mistakes and transgressions. Without atonement it would be unbearable to go on living with the unresolved and painful pieces of our past.

Sukkot, at first glance, seems to be far more connected with Jewish history. Yet, at its essence, this holiday is actually a festival of thanksgiving for what we have. We acknowledge the tranquility in our lives and express our gratitude for Divine gifts.  Moreover, our sages teach us that during Sukkot — in the days of the Holy Temple – 70 bulls were offered to God in the name of the 70 nations of the world. As the prophet Zachariah foretells, in the days to come it is on Sukkot that all the peoples of the world will come as pilgrims to the Temple in Jerusalem (14:16-21).

This combination of the particular and the universal is not just one more interesting point: it is the key for understanding the meaning of these three holidays.  In all our other celebrations, and perhaps in Jewish religious life in general, we stress the specificity of Jewish existence. Most of our holidays and memorial days are deeply connected with our own history.

In Tishrei, however, we focus on our fundamental humanity, on the fact that we are human beings with great problems. In this context, humanity is not defined as a group of human beings; here we speak of our basic humanity — humanity as a quality. The very touchstones that we mark in Tishrei are what make us human. The essence of the universality of these holidays, then, is not in the point of sharing with others: it is in delving into ourselves in order to reveal and find some of the fundamentals of our existence. We explore and acknowledge what is universal to all humankind within our own selves.

The fourth and last of the holidays of the month of Tishrei, Shemini Atzeret (and with it Simchat Torah), stands in clear contrast to the first three. As beautifully depicted by our sages, the King made great banquet, to which he invited all the citizens of his realm. At the end of these feasts, he called his most beloved friend and said: now that all these big events are over, let us have a small banquet just for the two of us (tractate Sukkah 55b).

Rabbi Adin Even-Israel Steinsaltz is a world-renowned distinguished scholar, teacher, mystic and social critic. He has written over 60 books and hundreds of articles on the Talmud, Kabbalah and Chasidut. His works have been translated into English, Russian, French, Portuguese, Spanish, Swedish, Italian, Chinese and Japanese. Rabbi Steinsaltz has been on a life-long mission to make the Talmud accessible to all. His translations of the Talmud into Hebrew, French and Russian have sold more than a million copies. The first volume of the new Koren Talmud Bavli with Rabbi Steinsaltz’s English translation and commentary is available through the publisher and Amazon. The Koren Talmud iPad Appwill be available soon. November 18th is the Third Annual Global Day of Jewish Learning, a program spearheaded by Rabbi Steinsaltz to bring the study of Jewish texts to communities around the world.

Leave a Reply

Please note: comments may be published in the Algemeiner print edition.


Current day month ye@r *

More...

  • Arts and Culture Middle East Hamas Commander Reportedly Urges Hezbollah to Join Forces Against Israel

    Hamas Commander Reportedly Urges Hezbollah to Join Forces Against Israel

    JNS.org – Five months after Israeli forces tried to assassinate Hamas military commander Mohammed Deif in Gaza, Deif appears to have signed a letter that the terrorist group claims he wrote in hiding. The letter, addressed to Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah, expressed Deif’s condolences for the death of Hezbollah terrorists during Sunday’s reported Israeli airstrike in Syria. Deif is said to have survived multiple assassination attempts, but he has not been seen in public for years. According to the Hezbollah-linked Al-Manar [...]

    Read more →
  • Jewish Identity Theater Shlomo Carlebach Musical Has the Soul to Heal Frayed Race Relations

    Shlomo Carlebach Musical Has the Soul to Heal Frayed Race Relations

    JNS.org – The cracks that had been simply painted over for so long began to show in Ferguson, Mo., in November 2014, but in truth they had begun to open wide much earlier—on Saturday, July 13, 2013. That is when a jury in Sanford, Fla., acquitted George Zimmerman of culpability for the death of a 17-year-old black man, Trayvon Martin. The cracks receded from view over time, as other news obscured them. Then came the evening of Aug. 9, 2014, [...]

    Read more →
  • Theater US & Canada ‘Homeland’ Season Finale Stirs Controversy After Comparing Menachem Begin to Taliban Leader

    ‘Homeland’ Season Finale Stirs Controversy After Comparing Menachem Begin to Taliban Leader

    A controversial scene in the season finale of Homeland sparked outrage by comparing former Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin to a fictional Taliban leader, the UK’s Daily Mail reported. In the season 4 finale episode, which aired on Dec. 21, CIA black ops director Dar Adal, played by F. Murray Abraham, justifies a deal he made with a Taliban leader by referencing Begin. He makes the remarks in a conversation with former CIA director Saul Berenson, a Jewish character played by Mandy [...]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture Spirituality/Tradition Placing Matisyahu Back Within a Life of Observance

    Placing Matisyahu Back Within a Life of Observance

    Shining Light on Fiction During the North Korea-Sony saga, we learned two important lessons. The first is that there are two sides to this story, and neither of them are correct because ultimately we should have neither inappropriate movies nor dictators. The second is that we cannot remain entirely fixed on the religious world, but we also must see beyond the external, secular view of reality. It’s important to ground our Torah-based thoughts into real-life activism. To view our act [...]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture Blogs Nine Decades of Moses at the Movies

    Nine Decades of Moses at the Movies

    JNS.org – Hollywood has had its share of big-budget biblical flops, but until now, the Exodus narrative has not been among them. Studios have brought Moses to the big screen sparingly, but in ways that defined the image and character of Moses for each generation of audiences. The first biblical epic In 1923, director Cecil B. DeMille left it to the American public to decide the subject of his next movie for Paramount. DeMille received a letter from a mechanic [...]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture Blogs Exodus on Screen (REVIEW)

    Exodus on Screen (REVIEW)

    JNS.org – The story of the Exodus from Egypt is a tale as old as time itself, to borrow a turn of phrase. It’s retold every Passover, both at the seder table and whenever “The Ten Commandments” is aired on television. But the latest adaptation—Ridley Scott’s epic film, “Exodus: Gods and Kings”—fails to meet expectations. Scott’s “Exodus” alters the source material to service the story and ground the tale, but the attempt to reinvent the biblical narrative becomes laughable. Moses [...]

    Read more →
  • Jewish Identity Lifestyle ‘Jewish Food Movement’ Comes of Age

    ‘Jewish Food Movement’ Comes of Age

    JNS.org - In December 2007, leaders of the Hazon nonprofit drafted seven-year goals for what they coined as the “Jewish Food Movement,” which has since been characterized by the increased prioritization of healthy eating, sustainable agriculture, and food-related activism in the Jewish community. What do the next seven years hold in store? “One thing I would like to see happen in the next seven years is [regarding] the issue of sugar, soda, and obesity, [seeing] what would it be like to rally the [...]

    Read more →
  • Blogs Education Seeds of ‘Start-Up Nation’ Cultivated by Israel Sci-Tech Schools

    Seeds of ‘Start-Up Nation’ Cultivated by Israel Sci-Tech Schools

    JNS.org – Forget the dioramas. How about working on an Israeli Air Force drone? That’s exactly the kind of beyond-their-years access enjoyed by students at the Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) industrial vocational high school run by Israel Sci-Tech Schools, the largest education network in the Jewish state. More than 300 students (250 on the high school level and 68 at a two-year vocational academy) get hands-on training in the disciplines of aviation mechanics, electricity and energy control, and unmanned air [...]

    Read more →



Sign up now to receive our regular news briefs.