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Understanding the Awe

September 29, 2005 By:
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For Reuven Hammer, the High Holidays are associated with the sights and sounds of an upstate New York autumn - leaves turning color, chestnuts falling from the trees, the nip in the air.

"I can almost feel myself again in the front yard of the building we always called the 'little shule,' which was not really a synagogue, and certainly was not a 'temple.' I spent innumerable hours - probably fewer than it seemed to me then - playing outside with cousins and friends while our parents and grandparents davened inside. We gathered chestnuts, broke open the pods, and polished the nuts to a burnished mahogany. We found the most colorful leaves we could, creating bouquets of deep red and gold. Inside, the New Year was being celebrated in prayer and melody, but outside we were performing the ritual of autumn."

When the children were at last called in, it was not to join junior congregation or separate into play groups; something far better awaited them - being reunited with their grandparents, who were expectantly waiting their appearance. The upper story of the building was the women's gallery where the mothers, sisters and aunts watched the men below.

"The sight of all the men gathered together was a powerful one," writes Hammer. "My father's father was a short man who had seven tall sons. (Their height came from my grandmother.) They sat together on a bench at the front to the right of the ark, an impressive sight to behold. My other grandfather, a cohen, was a good davener with a beautiful voice. When he participated in the recitation of the priestly blessing - the dukhening - it was a haunting experience. I made certain to be inside when it took place. Without understanding what it meant, I was mesmerized by the sight of my grandfather standing with a group of men, wrapped in their tallesim so that their faces were hidden, chanting a combination of Hebrew words and wordless melodies. My grandfather's beautiful voice was stronger than the others. If the feel of autumn and its smells represent those Days of Awe in the sensuousness of sight and feeling, the blessing of the cohanim captures them for me in sound and emotion."

In the years since, Rabbi Hammer learned much more about the prayers, concepts and rituals that permeate the holidays. Seven years ago, he distilled his knowledge into Entering the High Holy Days, which has become one of the classic works associated with this reverential period.

Now, the Jewish Publication Society, the work's original publisher, has made Entering the High Holy Days even more accessible by bringing it out in paperback. This may mean that many more committed readers will come to it and make it a central part of their holiday experience.

The warmth and beauty of Hammer's introductory memories are indicative of the tone and spirit of the book as a whole. As the author writes, "there is probably nothing more important to me than the feelings I experienced on the High Holy Days as a child, when I came to recognize the importance of being part of a Jewish community, of our existence. That is what this season is all about: together we celebrate the fact that God has given us the opportunity to live and to experience this world. We celebrate a festival of life."

'Responsibility and Judgment'

Memories are an important part of the text, but the work is actually a guide to the history, prayers and themes that are first sounded, then repeated and varied, from Rosh Hashanah eve to the point when the shofar is sounded at the conclusion of Yom Kippur.

According to the author, the Yamim Nora'im, or "Days of Awe," have as their central components judgment and forgiveness. On Rosh Hashanah, the stress is on the former, including the concepts of kingship and remembrance. These ideas teach us that the world has meaning because "it has a ruler who makes demands upon human beings and who remembers and judges them." A major theme is that individuals must be accountable for their actions.

Hammer also points out that the concept of judgment is nowhere mentioned in the Bible in connection with Rosh Hashanah. He traces the source of the idea to the psalms that were connected with an ancient New Year celebration. "After describing the proclamation of God as king, Psalms 96 and 98 conclude with the idea that God is coming 'to judge the earth; He will judge the world in righteousness and its peoples in faithfulness.' In God's role as judge and ruler of the world, God is responsible for judgment. There is, then, a direct ideological connection between the New Year, marking the beginning of God's reign, and the idea of godly judgment of the earth."

But where Rosh Hashanah deals with human responsibility and divine judgment, Yom Kippur is focused on human failure and divine forgiveness. Even if we sin, this failure can be mitigated; forgiveness is entirely attainable. As the author puts it, "By striving for forgiveness (which we do during Selihot), we gain atonement (kaparah)."

And according to Hammer, judgment and forgiveness are joined by the possibility of repentance (teshuvah), which is the theme of the period between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, the 10 days of repentance (aseret yemei teshuvah). Judgment does not mean a definite punishment. There is always the possibility of change, of repentance, and with these comes atonement.

The author reminds us that the oldest prayers in the High Holy Day liturgy call Rosh Hashanah Yom Hazikaron - "the Day of Remembrance." The theme is one of the three major strands woven throughout the Amidah for Rosh Hashanah: kingship (malkhuyot), remembrance (zikhronot) and shofrot. The link is expressed most clearly in a rabbinic saying: "Proclaim Him king so that He may remember you with the shofar of redemption."

"It is easy to misunderstand the idea of the Day of Remembrance, confusing it with a deterministic view of life, a fatalistic attitude that our future is preordained, that like Oedipus we are doomed to live out some preordained force of destiny. But the concept of 'remembrance' means exactly the opposite: we have complete freedom of choice. God judges us on the basis of what we have done. As for our fate, we alone determine it. In the words of one of the piyyutim - the special poems compiled for this season - 'the hand of every person has written it.' "

This is just a brief's sampling of Hammer's erudition. Now that the work is in paperback, it's the right size to slip into your tallis bag, so that when ideas and questions arise, you can turn to it as your guide, as you likely will for many High Holy Days in the future.

• • •

Another JPS title of note is the Etz Hayim Study Companion, edited by Jacob Blumenthal and Janet Liss. It, too, is in paperback, and easily transportable to work or synagogue or study group.

The guide is programmatic in purpose. Etz Hayim has 41 essays, interspersed throughout the Torah and commentaries, dealing with the interpretation of the Bible. The guide has been fashioned to assist the reader in interpreting and clarifying these essays, which deal with the Bible's historical context; whether it's the word of God; and how to make it relevant in every age.

When the Etz Hayim Torah commentary was issued in paper by JPS earlier this year, I wrote that many in the Conservative movement have come to know and love the work, as it has become, or is the process of becoming, the central Chumash used in many Conservative shuls. The same centrality can be imagined for this guide, which will also doubtless become the fast friend of many committed students and daveners.

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