Fall is a time for transition. In the natural world, summer’s greens change to gold and red. Trees shed their leaves, preparing for winter and then rebirth.
The seasonal shift and transformation can also be found in the realm of faith. It is a time of reflection and soulful introspection, one that seeps into various faiths. In fact, two of Judaism’s most important dates take place in the fall — the High Holy Days, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.
For Rabbi Rachael Bregman, it is a time for soul searching and spiritual reorientation. Rosh Hashanah, which begins Sunday and is celebrated through Tuesday, marks the Jewish new year. It is also held that on Rosh Hashanah God opens the Book of Life and the Book of Death to record the names of the righteous and the wicked, respectively. Then, 10 days later, on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, the books are closed and sealed for the coming year.
“What you get are the book ends of life. There is the beginning and the end so there are a lot of those types of themes around all of these holidays,” she said.
The holy days begin joyously with celebration of a new year. Families go to temple, share meals and eat sweets as a way of inviting a prosperous year. The phrase “shanah tovah” or “l’shanah tovah,” which is Hebrew for “happy new year,” is also exchanged.
“You eat sweet foods like apples and honey. You have a round rather than braided, challah or egg bread with raisins to celebrate sweetness and fullness,” Bregman said.
The mood turns more somber as the days tick toward Yom Kippur. It is a time to take a serious look at one’s life with a sense of humility and set intentions toward making positive change. Bregman said marking Yom Kippur includes many of the same things one would do if they were preparing for the end of their life.
“Yom Kippur is a practice for the end of your life. Traditionally, you wear white, you are fasting and you don’t wear makeup. You don’t bathe, really it is about abstaining from earthly delights ... so no food, no sex. You are not supposed to go engage in regular pursuits,” she said. “You are trying to transcend the earthly realm to move to a more spiritual place.”
Making amends in the time leading up to Yom Kippur is also a critical part of the equation. Just as one facing a terminal illness may seek forgiveness from those wronged, the faithful should pursue a similar path, seeking absolution from mistakes, Bregman said.
“You have a few days before your fate for the year is sealed. So you have the opportunity to hustle ... doing acts of charity, praying and other acts of repentance. That can altar the decree,” she said. “It is really a time to look and see what you didn’t do so great with last year. You can see where you missed the mark. Then spend those days leading up to Yom Kippur doing acts of charity and praying.”
Taking a hard look at one’s life helps to re-center one’s journey, allowing them to move forward in a positive way. It is a lesson that Bregman feels can also benefit the larger community, regardless of religion.
“Of course, anyone is welcome to come to any of our services ... it may be of interest to people who are seekers or Christians interested in the origins of their own faith. The themes of the holy days are incredibly universal. It makes you look at your life and think ‘what if this were the last day of my life?’ Facing your own mortality inspires change,” she said.
“The hallmark of the season is repentance. The Hebrew word is ‘teshuvah’ and the root word means ‘return’ so it is about turning and shifting, returning to something more innocent ... back to the innocence of childhood. It doesn’t even have to be a full or a quarter turn, just a few degrees.”
That can be a very personal, internal movement or it can be working toward something beyond oneself. This year, Bregman is encouraging congregants, as well as those spanning the spectrum of faith and backgrounds to take this time to think about social injustice and how to break down barriers to make the world a better place.
“There are a lot of systems that seem so obviously broken right now. There’s so much pain, suffering ... gender and racial disparity. And as beautiful as it is to think that one person or one moment will magically transform the whole thing ... it just isn’t true. It will really take all of us working together to change the world.
It will take everyone,” Bregman said. “Everybody has to stand up and say something (when there is something is wrong). Even those who are not being hurt by the system need to stand up and say that we need change. The Bible says, ‘do not stand idly by the blood of your neighbors.’ If you see something, say something. It’s a responsibility that should be shouldered by everyone.”