Prayer, reflection, repairing relationships, atonement, forgiveness, fasting, resolutions and a fresh start followed by eight days of happiness starting with what else? plenty of Jewish food. The Jewish High Holy Days cover it all, said Rabbi Nancy Wechsler-Azen of Carmichael's Reform synagogue Beth Shalom.
Rosh Hashana the Jewish New Year celebrating the creation of the world 5,774 years ago and the day of judgment and coronation of God officially begins Wednesday night. But the Jewish High Holy Days actually launched a month ago and stretch through Yom Kippur, and the ensuing holidays of Sukkot and Simichat Torah, ending Sept. 27, Wechsler-Azen said.
President of the Rabbis' Association of Greater Sacramento and an expert on spiritual healing and Mussar how to ethically live your daily life Wechsler-Azen describes the Jewish spiritual journey.
What's all the hoopla about?
The primary goal of the entire Jewish High Holiday season from the observance of Selichot, meaning forgiveness, until the completion of our harvest festival Sukkot is to be filled with happiness. We follow a lunar calendar. We started Aug. 6 on the eve of the new month, Elul, when you take a spiritual inventory of the past year, things we said that should be healed and how can we get on track.
During this auspicious month, we believe God is closest to us. The Kabbalists, or Jewish mystics, said, "The King is in the field," meaning we can now recognize the divine in all things and at all times. We recite Psalm 27 daily, reminding us to trust and not fear God, and are encouraged to be in communication with God however we understand that to be, and to draw close.
We also sound the shofar, or ram's horn, each day, so by Rosh Hashana, you've been spiritually rockin' it all month long.
The Saturday evening before Rosh Hashana is Selichot, when key prayers are recited and the sanctuary begins to transform into the High Holiday mode. Our bima or raised stage is changed from deep maroon to white, along with the mantels covering our sacred scrolls, called Torah.
We delve into T'shuva, which means a "return" to our better selves. It can mean forgiving others, asking for forgiveness as well as reconnecting with God.
When does Rosh Hashana actually begin?
We start Rosh Hashana this Wednesday evening on the new month of Tishrei when the world was born and the first human beings, Adam and Eve, were created. We set out apples and honey for a sweet new year.
At services Thursday morning, the Earth trembles when we blow the shofar 100 times in blasts of varying intensity long, bleating and staccato each representing something different. It's so piercing it moves the molecules around inside you and shakes you to your core. The shofar reminds us we're vulnerable and there is a Creator that judges us with compassion, but judges us nevertheless. We ask God to remember us and to inscribe us in the Book of Life.
If the month of Elul was about personal accounting, then Rosh Hashana is audit day. There is really only one question: 'How can we become as much as we have the potential to become?'
What is Yom Kippur?
After two days of Rosh Hashana, we have eight sacred days to repair relationships before Sept. 13, the start of Yom Kippur or Day of Atonement, the most important Jewish holiday. On Yom Kippur, we atone for our sins between people and God. To atone for sins against another person, you must first seek reconciliation with that person and hopefully this gets done before Yom Kippur.
Jews fast for 25 hours on Yom Kippur. They don't drink water and don't work, wear makeup or leather shoes or engage in marital relations. Some even say that it's like a dress rehearsal for our own death. The point is to be empty in order to reflect and become clear.
This year, Yom Kippur begins on Friday evening, Sept. 13, when my mother, Sylvia Wechsler, a violinist, plays "Kol Nidrei," a haunting melody she's played for over 65 years. The melody and words acknowledge that we do make vows that are not kept throughout the year and pleads with the Almighty for compassion.
The next morning we go to synagogue, worshipping and studying all day before the final blast of the shofar at sunset. Then we break the fast and begin building a backyard hut covered with palm branches and decorated with fruits and flowers called a sukkah.
When does the holiday period conclude?
From Sept. 18-25 we are challenged to be happy for the entire eight-day holiday of Sukkot. It's customary to have people visit our sukkahs, and some people even sleep inside.
The holiday cycle ends Sept. 27 with Simchat Torah, which means, "Rejoice in the Torah." Everyone comes to the synagogue to march seven times around the sanctuary with our Torah scrolls containing the five books of Moses.
What else are you reflecting on this year?
On the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, I've been reflecting on the power and possibility of social change. The primary calling of Judaism is that we should leave the world a better place then we entered it. We are all called to perform tikkun olam, the healing of the world through social justice and advocacy for righteousness. This is Jewish DNA and Jewish people gravitate to a variety of issues: civil rights and civil liberties, poverty, environment, human rights and disability rights, immigration law, gun violence, the environment and better education.
Rabbi Toachim Prinz, who spoke immediately before Dr. King, understood the plight of African Americans and other disenfranchised groups in the context of his own experience as the rabbi of a Jewish community in Berlin during Hitler's regime.
He articulated a message that has always resonated with me: "Bigotry and hatred are not the most urgent problem. The most urgent, the most disgraceful, the most shameful and the most tragic problem is silence."
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Editor's Note: This story was changed on Sept. 2, 2013. An earlier version of this article used a Jewish spelling of the word God to reflect that Rabbi Nancy Weschsler-Azen uses that spelling. The story should have explained that, along with the reason for the spelling, which is that G-d is traditionally used to avoid the risk that the written name of God may be accidentally defaced or thrown away.