High Holy Days

How do you score on the goodness scale?

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The High Holy Days provide strong memories for many people. For most people, a Rosh Hashanah dinner with the extended family and apples dipped in honey may provide some positive memories, while fasting on Yom Kippur may be less favorable. And yet, after Hanukkah and Passover, fasting on Yom Kippur is the most popularly observed Jewish ritual by American Jews. It is also ranked as the “most important” Jewish holiday. What is it about fasting on Yom Kippur that makes it such a significant ritual?

We know Yom Kippur as a time for apologizing to the people whom we have wronged and seeking forgiveness for our sins. But what does it mean to seek forgiveness for our sins? Once we ask the people we have wronged for forgiveness, why do we need to ask God? In addition, what is a sin? According to the Oxford Dictionary, a sin is an immoral act considered to be a transgression against divine law. But in truth, what does divine law mean to most people? Exploring these questions may help us better understand Yom Kippur and the role of fasting.

One of the first rituals observed on Rosh Hashanah is greeting people with “L’shanah tovah”— which means “for a good year.” We don’t wish people a year of happiness, but rather for goodness. Happiness is feeling good about life, while goodness is about making a difference in the world. Goodness depends on human contributions; with our actions, we can bring goodness or badness into the world. It is the badness that we first focus on during the High Holy Days—in a desire to diminish it—so that the world can be filled with more goodness. Therefore, having a “good year” reflects how our actions impact our lives and the world; we are responsible for the goodness.

On Rosh Hashanah, it is the custom to dip apples in honey as a wish for a sweet year. It is a literal taste of what we want life to be like: filled with sweetness. In addition to the blessing for eating a fruit from the tree, before we eat the apple dipped in honey, we recite, “May it be Your will O’ God that we should be renewed for a sweet and good year.” These words indicate the connection of the honey’s sweetness to a year of goodness.

How do we bring goodness into the world?
First, it is by recognizing the ways in which we work against goodness. Namely, how do we bring badness into the world? Whether it is gossiping, dishonesty, stealing, or hurtful language, our words and our actions bring badness into the world. For wrongs like these, we have to own up to what we’ve done and make amends through direct apologies and rectifying the situation when possible.

Next, we must consider the missed opportunities for goodness. Situations when we did nothing to stand up for others or to do an act of goodness for someone else. These aren’t occasions that we had to go out looking for—they are simply moments that were presented to us when we failed to bring goodness into the world. When we reflect on our actions for the past year, there are probably more of these than we realized. The opportunity presented itself for us to do something good and we failed to see it or, worse, intentionally chose not to act. It is always important to remember that doing nothing is doing something when it comes to impacting other people’s lives.

Finally, we are supposed to consider the ways we could have brought goodness into the world through our own initiative. A few examples are:

• Doing a kindness to someone who has suffered a loss or is dealing with illness. Whether it is a visit, running an errand, sending a meal, or even just checking in, such actions help in their recovery.

• Providing financial assistance to someone truly in need or providing them an opportunity to improve their lives.

• Reaching out to someone who is not doing well or down on themselves to lift up their spirits.

• Becoming a mentor to someone in need of professional or personal guidance.

There are many ways to bring goodness into the world; we just need to look for them.

Yom Kippur is the day on which we are supposed to consider the ways in which our speech and actions bring goodness into the world or not. We are supposed to make a commitment to be better agents of good. The forgiveness we seek on Yom Kippur is about our failure to bring goodness into the world—when we have been part of the problem rather than the solution. Whether we feel that we have disappointed God or ourselves, the consequences are the same: We have negatively impacted the world. There is nothing worse than not living up to our potential. In Hebrew, we refer to this as the process of teshuvah—which translates to repentance but literally means “return.” We are trying to return to the right path—to the path of achieving our potential for goodness.

And fasting, why is it considered so important to many Jews?
I believe that for many of us, fasting is the way in which we aff i rm that we are taking the process of teshuvah seriously. It demonstrates that if we wish, we can overcome our baser instincts in order to act according to our potential. When we elevate our actions and bring goodness to the world, we live holy lives. Fasting is a way of indicating that our desire for goodness means more than just making a list of resolutions on New Year’s Eve and then getting drunk, as we do in our American tradition. Fasting for a full day is not easy, but neither is changing our behavior. If we could only feel the pangs of hunger every time we failed to bring goodness into the world, we would understand what our actions truly mean.

If we want a good world, it all begins with us.

L’shanah tovah—for a good year.

By Rabbi Stewart L. Vogel
Temple Aliyah Woodland Hills