Perhaps no time of year gets closer to the true meaning of being a Jew than Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur; together, they are sometimes called “Days of Awe.” Synagogues that seem to have a paltry number of congregants the rest of the year suddenly burst at the seams on these two days when every member appears at once. One synagogue I visited rents a nearby auditorium for those days, with reserved seating available months in advance.
The two holy days are like bookends that prop up a time of intense soul searching between them. The Torah calls Rosh Hashanah the “Day of Remembrance.” Jews are required to carefully review their actions over the previous 12 months, searching their memories for instances in which they have wronged any person perhaps by being less-than-kind or unfairly judgmental.
It’s like God is the great videographer in the sky who has every moment recorded and now you have to review the footage without pretense. There’s no fooling God, no making excuses for your behavior, no dodging responsibility. These days of introspection culminate in Yom Kippur, or the “Day of Atonement,” when God grants forgiveness to anyone who sincerely seeks it; however, no effort is considered sincere unless the person has also sought forgiveness from the people he or she may have wronged. According to rabbinic maxim, before man can make his peace with God he must make his peace with his fellow man.
The first night of my first Rosh Hashanah at the Unitarian church felt mostly celebratory but with a whisper of something more melancholy. Though I could understand only the English portion of prayers and readings thanking God and acknowledging the wonder of creation, I easily detected a somber note in the expressions of gratitude. I spied a wistfulness in the eyes of my fellow worshippers as we wished each other “shana tova,” or “good year,” and sampled from the table of confections. The flavors dissolved in my mouth like memories that fade into a sweet nostalgia.
The following day, those of us who were able met again—this time at an interfaith house on the nearby college campus. Twenty or so of us from the night before moved the chairs into a circle. A teenager opened a box and pulled out a squat twisted horn, a shofar, which is a ram’s stubby antler. As tradition dictates, he blew into it over and over again, creating a noise like an agonized primal cry, something akin to the sound Edvard Munch’s famous painting “the Scream” would make if the central figure were suddenly audible. Some say this is precisely the point of listening to shofar blasts on this day—they mimic the inarticulate shriek of our souls as we shine the spotlight of truth on them.
As I left the interfaith house on Rosh Hashanah afternoon with the haunting sound of the shofar echoing in my mind, I recalled a comment I had read. It was by Maimonides, the famous Torah scholar from the Middle Ages. He said that the sound of the shofar tells us, “Awake, ye sleepers from your sleep…and ponder over your deeds…”