Forgivenesses: Getting ready for the High Holidays

Rabbi Herbert Bronstein

By Rabbi Herbert Bronstein, Torah Columnist

Torah Portion: Nitzavim – Vayeilech (Deuteronomy 29:9–30:20, 31:1–30)

Preparation is necessary for the accomplishment of any important project or challenge, whether it be an academic exam or an interview for a job, or the process leading to the award of a commercial contract. No athlete, no coach, would even think of competing in a game without rigorous preparation: preparation for days, for weeks, preparation sometimes for months, or as in the case of the Olympics, preparation even for years.

The same holds true in the cultural realm. Instrumentalists and actors devote multiple hours to intricate and often tedious rehearsals. On the other side of the stage, audiences are gratified when they are prepared through talks offered by experts who provide greater understanding and therefore greater enjoyment of the performance itself.

Should not the same hold true for great religious events? Yet many, perhaps the majority, think that in order to maintain their Jewish identity, they can “check in” at the High Holidays and achieve a spiritual “high” on the High Holidays without familiarity with the text and prayers learned through regular attendance at services during the year. It is as if they sit in the pews looking at the rabbis and cantor as if with arms folded saying “Move me!” Yet, no matter how beautiful the music and the “performance” of the worship, no matter how beautiful the Sanctuary that “high” cannot be really achieved without preparation.

In Jewish custom an entire month, the month of Elul leading up to Rosh Hashanah is set aside for preparation. Jews over the ages have set aside the month preceding Rosh Hashanah for additional study and prayer and moreover, most important for a moral self-accounting in terms of our relationships with others. We are supposed to devote time to asking in this respect, are we “in the “red”, or “in the black”? This determines what remains to be done before the High Holidays and this leads us to the core of what exactly the preparation is for the High Holidays.

The core of preparation for the High Holidays is indicated by a worship service that takes place on a Saturday night at least a week prior to the High Holidays. The very name of that service teaches us the essence of preparation for the High Holidays: The service is called “Slichot” which literally means “Forgivnesses

Preparation for the High Holidays is accomplished through both asking for the forgiveness of G-d and seeking to receive the forgiveness of others for the wrongs of omission or commission which we have done to them. If we are “on the outs” with another person, before the worship of the High Holidays, no matter who is “right” or “wrong” each individual must take the initiative in trying to reconcile ourselves with the other, trying, according to custom, at least three times.

Many kinds of material wrong doing or hurt can be made up through monetary fines or repayment. But for psychic hurts, such as humiliating a person in public we must seek personal forgiveness. Some people gain a little momentary ego self-satisfaction by making a clever remark at the expense of someone else. They get momentary satisfaction by inflicting lasting hurt to someone’s self-regard or self-confidence.

But “all the rams in the world” states the Talmud (B.K. 90a-b, 92a) cannot compensate for hurting someone’s feelings particularly through public humiliation. We have to seek forgiveness of that person and we must do so repeatedly: “sins between human beings and G-d are reconciled through High Holiday worship but sins between human beings are reconciled only through seeking and giving forgiveness”.

And as in the material world there is a time limit, for this moral obligation. In the material world the usual extra time given to repay a debt is ninety days. In the spiritual world the debt should be paid before the ten days of repentance or at least before the Day of Atonement.

Rabbi Herbert Bronstein is senior scholar at North Shore Congregation Israel (Reform).

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