Friday, September 13, 2013

"Let Us Tell How Holy This Day Is"

There is a prayer, midway through the morning service on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, that gives me chills. That gives everyone chills.

The ark opens so that the Torah scrolls are visible. The congregation stands. For a second there is silence, and then one voice rises from the front of the sanctuary as the chazzan - the leader of the service - begins to chant the prayer. No matter what synagogue you are in around the world the melody is the same. Slow. Haunting. Timeless.

The prayer is called "U'Netaneh Tokef Kedushat Hayom," loosely translated as "Let Us Tell How Holy This Day Is."

It begins by recalling the power of the ten days that encompass Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, the holiest days in the Jewish calendar. Because it is in these days, our rabbis tell us, that each Jewish person is judged. It is during these days where all of the events of the year ahead are decided. We learn that on Rosh Hashanah, our fate for the coming year is written down, and on Yom Kippur, it is sealed. And the days in between the two holidays are days of repentance, where we have a unique opportunity to change our fate.

Even the customary greetings we give each other during these holidays reflect the power of this time of year. On Rosh Hashanah we say, "ketiva ve-chatima tova," meaning "may you be written and inscribed for good." But as Yom Kippur draws closer, the greeting changes to "g'mar chatima tova," meaning, "may you be sealed for good.

U'Netaneh Tokef continues with a recitation of a litany of possible destinies that could befall us in the year to come. The chazzan recites the paragraph slowly, the ancient words explaining that on this day God will decide, among other things, "how many will pass from the earth and how many will be born into it," "who will live and who will die," "who will rest and who will wander," "who will be impoverished and who will be enriched," and "who will be degraded and who will be exalted."

It is solemn and scary and powerful. But it is ultimately uplifting.

Because the climax of the prayer is not the listing of all the gruesome ways in which we might meet our fates over the coming year, but instead when the entire congregation joins their voices together and declares "but repentance, prayer and charity remove the evil of the decree."

Ultimately, the message of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur is that we are masters of our own destiny. That there is a God who may inscribe us for a certain kind of year, but that we have the ability to control what inscription is sealed for us. The idea that we may transgress, but that we can - and will - be forgiven. By ourselves. By each other. By God. Even Yom Kippur, a day of fasting and prayer, has an undertone of joy in the spirituality of the day and the confidence that we will be sealed for a year of goodness and prosperity.

As the beginning of Yom Kippur draws near, I find myself comforted by the thought of the 25 hours ahead. Hours where I will sit in my synagogue with my community and immerse myself in ancient prayers. Hours where I will think about the year ahead, and my wishes for myself and for my family.

And tomorrow night when the sky darkens, the final prayer is said, and the single blast from the shofar is sounded indicating the end of the fast and the beginning of a clean slate, I will walk home lighter, happier, and hopeful for what is in store for all of us in the coming year.

Wishing all who are celebrating a g'mar chatima tova. May you and your families be sealed for only the very best.


  1. Thank you for this glimpse into your life. Wishing you and yours all the best!

  2. I hope you had a great break. I love the slow, haunting, timeless description.

  3. You know, I feel silly - I actually didn't know the meaning behind Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, or that they were in any way related. You describe this holiday season so clearly, though, that now I feel like I can appreciate it. Something I think that is missing from my own spiritual practice is a sense of that deep, fearful reverence present in ancient religions full of tradition. That part of what you describe really appeals to me.
    I hope you had a wonderful holiday!