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Who’s afraid of the Days of Awe?

When my daughter was about five, she wrote a story called “You Should Be Punished For This and I Am Very Mad.” This pretty much summarizes how many people think about Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.  

Purim is about joy; Passover is about freedom; Chanukah is about light prevailing over darkness. What’s not to like about holidays like these? But the Days of Awe, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, are about contrition and about acknowledging our sins; they are about judgment and repentance and requests for forgiveness.  

The period of stocktaking starts on the first of Elul and goes on for forty days. It is launched with the clarion call of the shofar, and, as the prophet Amos declares: Can the Shofar be heard and people not tremble?   

As a parent, educator, and shlucha living in a small liberal college town, I have observed with growing concern as culturally, we have all become more uncomfortable with the notion of judgment.

Once upon a time, parents and teachers could talk about punishing children when they were acting out.  Gradually, we banished the “p” word, replacing it first with talk of discipline, and later with talk of natural consequences, and finally, the value of allowing children to make their own choices.  

The idea that guilt, shame, and adult expectations were crucial to child-rearing was replaced with a penchant for allowing personal expression and exploration, encouraged by parents constantly assuring children of their unconditional love and acceptance, with criticism and disapproval kept to a minimum. We were convinced that in this way, our children would grow to be happier adults, as if personal happiness were the measure of all things.  

When contrasted with the way that contemporary adults have chosen to wield their authority, the traditional image of G-d sifting through the accounts, weighing our deeds and misdeeds before inscribing us in the Book of Life, seems uncomfortably harsh—even medieval. Perhaps our grandmothers felt obligated to come to shul on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, tearfully begging forgiveness for lapses throughout the year. But many of us don’t like thinking all that much about what we’ve done (or neglected to do), we find it boring to spend all day in shul, and anyway, if G-d is a kind and loving G-d, shouldn’t He stop standing on ceremony and just let us be, forgiving us unconditionally?   

The Code of Jewish Law notes that while Rosh Hashanah is a day of judgment, a day to be taken seriously, it is not meant to be a day of dread and foreboding. We do not dress in black, like prisoners awaiting a dire verdict, but in white.  

Furthermore, on Rosh Hashanah and Erev Yom Kippur, we eat a festive meal, confident that G-d will respond to our prayers with love and mercy. As codified by law, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, despite their serious focus, are holidays—not doomsdays.  

At first glance, this appears to be a contradiction. What is the point of a day of judgment if we feel secure about the outcome? And if we are secure about the outcome, what imbues the day with such awe?   

Embracing Rosh Hashanah requires us to rethink the role of judgment (and even fear) in allowing us to lead lives worthy of joy and celebration.    

We can easily understand the important role that fear plays in our lives in keeping us from doing things that harm ourselves and other people. When the doctor tells a patient he will die if he doesn’t get his blood sugar under control, somehow the piece of chocolate cake does not look so enticing. If the fine for speeding in a school zone doubles, more drivers will slow down to avoid the risk of hitting a child. But when it comes to the relationship we have with G-d, to our Torah observance and piety, we have come to feel that guidance and standards are out of place, and that individuals must be allowed to define their relationship with G-d in their own way.   

It is true that actions that stem from love and personal initiative often contain a passion and engagement that is not present when doing things out of a sense of obligation. But if there are no parameters or expectations, no standards that we must meet, we are like animals running the Caucus race in Alice in Wonderland, moving about haphazardly every which way until after a time, the Dodo arbitrarily declares the race over and everyone a winner who must get a prize.  

In a race with no rules, nothing we do matters. And if nothing we do matters, then our lives have no purpose.  

We each bask in the shade of G-d’s love simply by virtue of our existence: we are His beloved handiwork. But Rosh Hashanah reminds us that G-d wants us not to just be. If each of us is truly special and valued in our own way, there must be a specific contribution that only we can make, that no one else can duplicate, that is at once within our capability and truly needed. Hence, when we do not live up to expectations, it is a betrayal of who we really are.  

Furthermore, the Zohar tells us that G-d in his kindness gave us commandments because no one likes to eat “the bread of shame.” If we were only beneficiaries of G-d’s kindness and nothing was ever asked of us in return, we would feel like parasites, consuming G-d’s resources but never contributing anything back. G-d graces us with responsibility, and that means taking us to task if we do not deliver.  

I once heard an adult with a learning disability tell me that as a child, when other children did not do their homework, they were punished. But the teachers had all decided that this boy was a hopeless case, and so long as he did not disturb the class, they exacted no consequences for his lack of even trying to do his homework. Nothing could sting more deeply than the lack of any expectation at all.  

A traditional prayer that appears in some siddurim makes the request of G-d that he grant us a life of love of Torah and fear of heaven, a life in which all the requests of our heart are granted. . . .  To love Torah and know what it asks of us, to fear G-d and know what He expects of us: these are the prerequisites of a blessed life, for nothing in the world can satisfy us if we have not first satisfied our primal yearning for meaningful contribution.   

The Days of Awe remind us that relationships, to thrive, need not just love but expectation. G-d believes in us enough to call us to task, but tells us to have the confidence and joy that comes from knowing we can rise to the occasion. What greater cause for celebration can there be?


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