The High Holy Days, specifically Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, are Judaism’s answer to life’s existential predicament. Today, there are approximately 7.8 billion people on Earth. You are one of 7,800,000,000. The Earth has a surface area of 196.9 million miles squared. Our universe is about 93 billion light years in diameter. In other words, it would take light 93 billion years to travel from one end of the universe to the other. It is only natural for people to look at the population of the world, the size of the Earth, or the expansiveness of the universe and feel small and insignificant. Some look at the world, its population, the tiny amount of space it takes up in the universe and conclude that life is meaningless.
Judaism offers Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur as a perennial reminder that every life is precious and meaningful. Existentialism looks at the frailty of life and the impossibility to guarantee each of us will live to see tomorrow’s sunrise and concludes that life insignificant and meaningless. Judaism looks at the frailty of life and the impossibility to guarantee each of us will live to see tomorrow’s sunrise and concludes that life is precious, a finite commodity, and needs to be valued and respected. Because we are not guaranteed a tomorrow, we need to appreciate every day and receive each additional day as a gift and not an entitlement.
Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur remind us of the frailty and preciousness of life and ask us to look at our actions over the last 11 months. Have we shown gratitude for each additional day, and do we find ourselves worthy of additional days? Our liturgy teaches us that gratitude is shown through treating others with compassion and kindness.
Symbolically, Jews stand before God and are judged once a year—on Yom Kippur. On Yom Kippur, we ask if God is proud of the life we lived over the past year. God can be different things to different people. God can be a judge. God can also be the echo of our voice asking if we are proud of the life we lived over the past year. In asking God, we also ask ourselves. We are to ask ourselves why we deserve another year. Yom Kippur is a time for deep soul searching and repentance.
In Judaism, Rosh Hashanah simultaneously announces the beginning of a new year while cautioning that life is finite and does not exist in 12-month increments. Life is a blessing, a gift, and a miracle. Rosh Hashanah blends the sweetness of apples, honey, and renewed beginnings with the discomfort that Yom Kippur is right around the corner. If Rosh Hashanah is the sweetness and the excitement, then Yom Kippur is the hunger and the discomfort. While Rosh Hashanah celebrates, Yom Kippur worries and doubts.
Everything felt during this time: the excitement, trepidation, fear, doubt, and hope—all of the feelings are meant to assist and enhance this period of deep and somber introspection. We are supposed to question ourselves, look back on the year and wonder if we did enough. We must look back to see how far we’ve come and make peace with our past before we are able to look forward with clear vision and a renewed sense of hope. For this reason, it is important to approach the High Holy Days with wonder and amazement, and to allow ourselves to see the world with fresh eyes and renew our gratitude for each and every day.
Rabbi Michael G. Cohen leads Central Synagogue-Beth Emeth in Rockville Centre