Your short guide to High Holy-Day terminology

By Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg, September 24, 2008


"Man whose foundation is dust" (Musaf Amidah); the human being, composed of frailty and wonder; made of earth, yet in the image of God. We are susceptible to loneliness and fear, vulnerable to accidents, illness and violence. People we adore are torn from our lives; we realise that we too must die. So what is our existence worth? Yet our heart knows love and our soul recognises God. When compassion floods our being, when we feel joy and register beauty, when all our being sings, how marvellous it is to be human, what a privilege to be alive.


Life; Sefer Hachaim, the Book of Life; the abundance of life on earth. God delights in life and every life contains the spark of God's vitality. That's why we have such a deep responsibility to treasure life, our own, other people's, the life of every creature. Our particular life is our unique opportunity to do good, share love and honour God's world. But life is short, hence the implied meaning of that late biblical word for time, zeman: limited opportunity. Time runs through our fingers. That's why we must use life for the best, now.


Memory, the recollection of our deeds; hence the rabbinic name for Rosh Hashanah, Yom Hazikaron, on which God opens the book of memories. Without memory there is no moral accountability, without accountability no responsibility. "Our deeds do not just disappear into the black hole of time, but are recorded somewhere and judged," wrote Vaclav Havel. The record of our individual deeds is stored in our conscience, of our collective actions in society and history.


Judgment, hence the rabbinic name for Yom Kippur, Yom Hadin, the day of judgment. Is there justice on earth? Ask a war orphan; ask a child sold to the sex trade. The rabbis say Cain told Abel, "There is no judge and no judgment," then murdered him. Yet the heart knows love from hate and the conscience differentiates right from wrong. There, deep within, God meets us, teaching us the Torah of righteousness and compassion, and together we sift our deeds.


Sin; from the root meaning "to miss", cheit implies inadvertent wrongdoing, in contrast to pesha and avon, deliberate transgressions. Sin hurts others, damages our own moral integrity, drives God's presence from the world. That it's only human to sin is no excuse. Our responsibility encompasses both our own struggle to become the best person we can, and our duty to speak out against oppression and complacency. "Don't stand idly by your neighbour's blood," commands the Torah, damning moral indifference.


Confession, in particular the confessional prayers on Yom Kippur. Confession begins with what we tell ourselves. We all engage in internal "spin", adding motives and excuses to exculpate ourselves, until we ourselves believe it. Viddui starts with the courage to be honest. That's the empowering step which enables us to do better; what we don't acknowledge we can't change. We confess to ourselves and God, and to others where truth and healing may result. We resolve to make good the wrongs we've committed.


Return, both repentance from wrongdoing and our inner return to spiritual integrity and God. "Great is teshuvah for it brings healing to the world," teaches the Talmud. Teshuvah follows naturally from honesty and remorse; it brings a deeper perspective on our own life and the world. It marks the desire to do better, with new energy and love. Through teshuvah even our deliberate sins can become merits, says Resh Lakish, because the awareness of the very wrongs we've done fills us with longing to make good.


Prayer: we pray for what we want from our relationship with God, healing, forgiveness, bread for the hungry, peace, because Judaism teaches that God cares for all. At depth, we pray simply for our relationship with God: "Don't take your holy spirit from us" because what we want, God, is your presence in our lives. "Open the gate to us," we plead, because our soul yearns for connection with the infinite, with the hidden oneness of all life, the source of all vitality and love. This bond is the secret of spiritual harmony; it transforms who we are.


Righteousness, doing what is just, hence charity. Teshuvah and tefilah change our perspective on our own lives and deepen our relationships with each other and God. Tzedakah expresses our commitment to deeds. Spirituality without ethical action risks becoming narcissism. The word tzedakah stresses our absolute obligation to act with compassion and justice in our own community, Jewish society and the wider world. The cry of the victims of poverty, sickness and cruelty shames us. God demands our action.


Reconciliation, the opposite of broiges. Jewish law requires us to make peace before Yom Kippur. How can we ask God to forgive us if we won't mend our own quarrels? Where relationships are painful, we may need to talk, sometimes apologise. Listening to others, letting go of hurts, are generous acts. Refusing to communicate is usually wrong. Holding on to grudges brings only bitterness. At the same time, good relationships shouldn't be neglected; "Thank you" and "I love you" are wonderful words before the fast.

Selichah and Mechilah

Forgiveness and pardon. Selichah, a biblical word, means forgiveness from God. Mechilah, a rabbinic term, means to let go, to release from debt or obligation. Total forgiveness belongs to God. In the human realm, our relationships always carry their history with them. We cannot pretend the past never happened. But we can, through seeking understanding, let go of old hurts and restore trust. There is no future without such mechilah. Judaism asks us to be forgiving, just as we want God to forgive us.


Atonement with God. Yom Kippur doesn't atone for offences against other people, unless we first make good. And how can we be close to God if we continue to hurt God's creatures? Therefore the work of atonement means striving for harmony with each other, peace with our lives and at oneness with God. Is this achievable? Sometimes so much hurts us that we can scarcely forgive life, or God. The High Holy-Days are a season of opportunity, to struggle with life's meaning, find inspiration and renew our moral and spiritual integrity.

Last updated: 10:30am, October 2 2008