The Meaning of the High Holy Days: A Rabbis Roundtable Discussion

The High Holy Day season begins during the Hebrew month of Elul, when the shofar is sounded every weekday morning in order to instill a sense of awe in the Jewish people and call upon us to repent.
This year, Rosh Hashanah falls this year at sundown, Sept 25, and ends at sunset, Tuesday, September 27; and the fast day of Yom Kippur begins at sundown on Tuesday, October 4, and ends with the blowing of the shofar on Wednesday, October 5. 
The two holy days, and period known as Asseret Y’mei Teshuvah — the 10 days of repentance — that separates them, is a blend of joy and solemnity, feasting and fasting, prayer and inspiration make up the spiritually charged head of the Jewish year.
What does it all mean? What does repentance entail?  Recently, we gathered together three of our New Haven area rabbis to share with us their thoughts and insights on the High Holy Day season. 
SHALOM NEW HAVEN (SNH): We’re here speaking with Rabbi Rona Shapiro of Congregation B’nai Jacob in Woodbridge, Rabbi Brian Immerman of Congregation Mishkan Israel in Hamden, and Rabbi Josh Pernick who serves as the Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC) director and rabbi in residence for the Jewish Federation of Greater New Haven. 
Rabbis, thank you all so much for joining us today.  So tell us — what do you have planned for High Holy Day services this year? Will you be introducing anything new to the mix?
RABBI RONA SHAPIRO: Well, we’re going to be back in the sanctuary this year. And some of the changes that we made over COVID are staying with us. 
But I also personally think that the holidays are the worst time to do anything differently. Because the people who come just for the holidays are the least the connected to the synagogue and they want what is familiar to them. You know, if you go to your grandmother's house and you want her chicken soup and her brownies, you really don't want her to tell you “I just came up with a caramel flan that I’d like to try on you.” And that’s kind of what the high holidays are. No caramel flan. You want her chicken soup and her brownies.
RABBI BRIAN IMMERMAN: Amen, Rabbi, because we're all going to be back together. Every rabbi has got anxiety that nobody will show up to High Holy Day services and we all had to live with that anxiety during Covid. So, being back together is what I'm most excited most about. 
In terms of the service, we we are offering caramel flan along with our usual vanilla. So, for our second year in a row, we’re offering an alternative Rosh Hashanah service with the Afro Semitic Experience. David Chevron, the group’s leader, is one of our congregants. The cantor and I are still participating and giving two sermons. Because it's on a Sunday, we moved services to five and we're really going to work to get families to come. It will be a super family friendly service with lots of music, a blend of new contemporary music from new artists with some ancient melodies. So, we’re really excited to
RABBI PERNICK: This is a little different for me. But I’ll say that on the Federation side of things, a lot about what we’re trying to do is to amplify what everybody else is doing in the community, and trying to use that role with Federation almost like a microphone to get the word out. 
I think this is a perfect example of how we're trying to hear about and then advertise things that are going on across our community. We're starting actually a Facebook group that's intended to sort of spawn collaborations. Maybe not for the holidays —because, as Rabbi Shapiro mentioned, people often already have what they want for that — but hopefully using the next couple months and thinking through where there are areas that we can do programming together. We really want to use the High Holidays as kind of a jumping off point for the rest of the year, pushing how great it is to be a Jew in New Haven. Just recognizing all of these incredible opportunities that are going on across our community. 
SNH:  When we talk about Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur we talk a lot about introspection about repentance. That’s a tough subject for kids to wrap their heads around. So what do you do to get kids engaged in that central theme High Holy Days? Are kids capable of introspection and repentance?
RABBI SHAPIRO: At our shul we have a service called “Apples and Honey” at 5 p.m. on Rosh Hashanah, that the cantor and I do before the main service at 6 p.m., and also there are children's services ongoing throughout every morning of the holiday. 
But I think that it's very important that, starting at a young age, children learn that everybody makes mistakes, everybody has to apologize when they make mistakes, and forgiveness is granted. I have witnessed too often parents telling their children they have to say “I’m sorry,” and the kid saying “I’m sorry” reluctantly. That's not helpful. But learning that making mistakes, asking forgiveness, understanding that none of us is perfect, that we all figuring out how we can do better and making a plan for that — that's something kids can understand. Thanks to PJ library, and other books aa well, there’s a pretty rich body of children's literature on that now, and I usually read from those stories to the kids.
RABBI IMMERMAN: I agree with a lot of what Rabbi Shapiro is saying. A lot of kids know that there are things that we're supposed to do and things that we're not supposed to do. I think one of the themes of the High Holy Holidays is unconditional love, that God loves us unconditionally. The bulletin article I just finished writing is all about the fact that teshuvah (repentance), is not a burden, it’s a gift. We look at fasting and having to repent and take stock of what we did as a burden. But it’s not. It’s a gift. It's a gift to acknowledge that we aren't perfect. Especially in today’s age, little kids and teenagers are on social media more and more and it looks like people are living these perfect lives and are infallible. I think it's a gift to be able to say nobody is perfect. 
My bulletin message asks: How is this still a thing? And I’m not talking about COVID — I’m talking about teshuvah. How are we doing this again every year? It's because we're not perfect. Because of the gift of teshuvah we’re able to return to be the people who we want to be. I think this is something that even little kids can understand. What do you really want to do? Do you want to be somebody who hits or who doesn't hit? You know introspection and taking stock - kheshbon hanefesh — is really talking about what what has happened and what we want to happen.
RABBI SHAPIRO: I just want to add that ever since I had kids who are old enough to get it, I also apologize to them. I mean throughout the year and on the high holidays. I haven’t been a perfect parent. I make mistakes. I let them know that.
RABBI PERNICK: Coming from a background of being a preschool teacher, I remember teaching a model lesson to first graders in Atlanta about teshuvah.  And I talked to kids about fairness, about what happens when you feel bad about something you did or you’re upset about what someone else did. Kids have very strong feelings about these things, and they remember these things very deeply. These are things that kids are already thinking about because kids are like miniature versions of adults. They are having the same curiosities, the same questions and the same sense of justice and injustice. 
So, I think we can help kids understand, in an age appropriate way, that these things are okay, that sometimes we're not perfect; that we don't expect you to be perfect, we expect you to grow from this experience and, hopefully, continue to grow so that every year there's a little bit more growth from previous experiences. And the next year you do it better than you did before.
We talk a lot about Jewish guilt, but I think teshuva is not about making people feel guilty about what they’ve done. It's about empowering people to choose the path they want. There are some beautiful conversations to be had about who you want to be. It's about being intentional about looking forward. That's what I love about the themes of the High Holidays. It's about what are we going to do in this next year.
SNH: Which brings me to the next question. You know, on January 1 we wish one another a ‘happy’ new year. But on Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, we wish each other a “shanah tovah” — a ‘good ‘year. What do we mean by a good year? It sounds very hopeful — in today’s world, what gives you hope for the year ahead?
RABBI SHAPIRO:  I'm going to say two things. The first is not direct answer to your question, but when I think about what lessons do we learn coming out of the pandemic and as we go into this year, it’s that time is short. We don't know what's going to happen. We don't know how many years we have here. So, live your best life. Whatever it is you wanted to do, do it. Whatever you think needs to be done in the world, don't wait. That is the deep message of the High Holy Days. Don't wait to be the person you aspire to be. Don't wait to tell the people you love that you love them. Don't wait to spend time doing the things that are important to you. 
I have thought a lot about hope this year and last year, and I think that hope is a stance. It’s to say, “Yes, I'm not blind. I see the challenges facing the Jewish people, the U.S. and the world right now. And those challenges are real. At the same time, I see the gift of life, the amazingness of human beings, the ingenuity of things we've accomplished throughout history. And I know that it's a blessing to be alive.” 
And so I hold those things together. I have hope because it's the stance I want to take. And I also think that hope isn't about sitting around waiting for good things to happen. Hope means moving to make those things happen. It has to be a muscular kind of hope.
RABBI IMMERMAN: Lord Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, of blessed memory, gave his definition of hope. He said optimism is the belief that things will get better. Hope is choosing to do what we can to make things better because there's been a lot in the last few months that I think are giving people despair. 
There is hope in coming together as a community on the High Holy Days and simply being in community, even if that means people are connecting online for those who don't feel comfortable being a person. I think being in community and hearing these melodies, ancient and new, that are familiar to us. Familiar spaces that can give people hope. The Jewish people have been through a lot over the last 2000 years, and yet here we are and we're coming together in our respective, wonderful congregations. One of the things we really agree upon is that there's going to be sweetness in the new year and hopefully we will experience that sweetness and share that sweetness with others.
RABBI SHAPIRO: Amen, amen.
RABBI PERNICK: I’m thinking back to March 2020 and the sense I had that we just need to keep our congregants inspired until about May or June and we would be okay…then we extended it, on and on and on. And so, I think this ties into what Rabbis Immerman and Shapiro were saying: that hope is a stance or the determination to make things better…to give people hope that normalcy will be returning soon. Over the last few years, we've come to a place of feeling that we don't know what normalcy will ever look like. We're constantly adjusting. And hope is making the best of these new experiences and finding the new opportunities that present themselves as experiences.
As Rabbi Immerman touched on, I’m talking about new opportunities to connect with people virtually. That has allowed a whole group of people who felt excluded because they were homebound or unable to come to a synagogue in person able to join. We’re taking advantage of the new things that present themselves. 
So, I think hope is really about finding opportunities in each day to be thankful for and going through the process of making the best of them. We start every day with Birchot Ha’shachar —the morning blessings—a recognition of the privileges we have. You know — 'Blessed oh god who clothes the naked'; 'Blessed oh god who feeds the hungry,' and so on. And we think,  “Oh, wow, look at all these things that I have. I don't have to worry about clothes on my back or food on my table. How am I going to make the world a place where everyone has access to these privileges that I have.” So we can focus on how we provide hope for those who don't have those same opportunities and privileges. 
SNH: Any final High Holy Day thoughts to share with the community?
RABBI SHAPIRO: You asked what a good year is, and I think we have to take the long view. I think that a lot of difficult situations are not going to turn around magically this year. But if people together, in numbers large and small, can take steps in the right direction, that would be a good year. And if we can be blessed with peace and health, that will be a great year.
RABBI IMMERMAN: We need a little bit of hakarat hatov, recognizing the good that people need to do. In the newer Reform Machzor, in one of the alternative readings for the 15th Ashamnu is a hakarat hatov. We do the tradition Ashamnu and then we do the hakarat hatov, the recognizing of the good and hopeful reasons to embrace optimism. I think that part of cheshbon hanefesh [accounting of the soul] is also saying “Here's what I did in the last year that was great. And I want to do more of that.” It's not only saying here's what I don't want to do, but here's what I want to do. And I think when we talk about finding a sense of kedushah, of holiness, in our lives and in our world, we don't just want to avoid the things that we're not doing. We want to intentionally fill it with the things that are good, whether that's social action, social justice, reading a good book, calling a family member, coming to synagogue, etc.
Q: Do you think we're a little bit too pessimistic about the future?
RABBI IMMERMAN: Look, we have many people in our community who have come to me deeply affected by what's been happening in the world. The war in Ukraine, the erosion of personal rights and autonomy for women, Jews who are very afraid that Christian coaches will force their kids to go and pray with them if they want to get a starting position. I think it's important to balance that. There are a lot of reasons to despair and there are reasons for hope as well.
RABBI PERNICK: Ultimately, the High Holy Days are about taking taking an honest accounting. Not just beating yourself up about all the bad things that you did, but recognizing that you’ve done a lot of good things as well. Positive psychology is a wonderful thing that often focuses on the notion that “I did do this good thing, and it helps inspire me to do that good thing more often.” So, Introspection shouldn't just be thinking about the bad; most of us have more good than bad that we’ve done and we want to dig into that as well. 
RABBI SHAPIRO: Picking up on those themes for a moment. That is Rabbi Nachman's theory of change.  I find that as a parent, as a teacher, as an employer, you’ve got a lot more traction, if you can say, “You do this really well, do more of it. Let's give you more space.” I try to work on the things that are; to focus on the good things and expand those, as opposed to try to fix those things that are really built in character traits.
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