By Al Maimon
This season in the Jewish calendar is a time for reflection and renewal. The main “sign posts” for this focus are Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur.
Actually, it begins in the summer, with a three-week period, bounded by two fast days, when we remember and mourn the destruction of the two Temples in Jerusalem (and other travails and tribulations suffered over millennia). And it ends on Hoshana Rabbah - the last day of Succoth, before Simchat Torah. It is a combination of collective, communal and individual, familial perspectives - sort of one for all and all for one.
As with much of our practice and celebration, we have many “things Sephardic” that have developed over the years and that invest our experiences with our unique world view, culture, language, literature, music and food. You can find some of these customs highlighted and explained in Ty Alhadeff’s comprehensive, well researched articles, like about Im Afes, Ladino in High Holiday prayers, what are Sephardic Rosh Hashana customs. The Reform community in Madrid has recently released a Rosh Hashana Seder Cookbook as well.
After Tisha BeAv (the second of the two fast days), we are in a collective state of depression and despondency - in remembering the sufferings, we are deeply concerned that our “deal” with HaShem - (his assurance that we will persist as a people and ultimately enjoy a return from our exile) is frayed, if not broken. We feel that we crossed a line of no return, there’s nothing we can do, we’re on our own and extraordinarily vulnerable. Immediately after this time, our liturgy and readings from the Prophets lead us to a feeling of comfort - HaShem’s commitment to us is still in force, and all is not lost. Then, after about three weeks, our mindset shifts to one of hope and confidence that we can still rely on the “deal.” So, we begin the month of Elul (the Hebrew month before Rosh Hashana). Some note that in Hebrew the word can be understood as an acronym for “I am for my beloved, and my beloved is for me,” and the Sephardic custom is to say a special, additional prayer, called “Selihot,” whose purpose is for us, collectively and individually, to presume to request HaShem’s forgiveness and protection by acknowledging that we have sinned and expressing our commitment to “do better.”
Then, when Rosh Hashana comes, the beginning of the Ten Days of Repentance, we actually suspend this theme, and, with an element of “chutzpah” (I don’t know a Ladino word for this, but you probably get it), focus on the special relationship that permits us to even ask for forgiveness, and a “new start.” We do have the shofar as a wakeup call and other symbols and prayers to recognize HaShem’s dominion, His favor towards us and acknowledge the significance of this time. Interestingly, we simultaneously invoke two metaphorical models - master/slave and father/son, us preferring the latter...
During the intervening time between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, we continue with Selihot, with increasing intensity and focus on our part, of repentance, to merit/achieve HaShem’s forgiveness.
On Yom Kippur, a fast day, we pull out all the stops, invoking the special prayer service led by the High Priest in the Temple and the “formula of forgiveness” - 13 attributes of mercy that HaShem revealed to Moses, when the Jews strayed with the Golden Calf in the desert (we say it a total of 26 times in 25 hours) and other historical moments, illustrating that no matter how “bad” we’ve been, no matter how “bad” it gets, the promise of our covenant persists.
Then, our tradition informs us that the gates of forgiveness remain open for an additional period of time, through Succoth and until Hoshanna Rabbah, with a theme of repentance and forgiveness present with the overarching joy and celebration of Succoth.
While we definitely pray for our being saved from our enemies and their punishment, throughout, there is a universal dimension of judgment and redemption of all human beings, indeed the world. In fact, the reading of the Prophets on Yom Kippur afternoon is the book of Jonah, which highlights the repentance made by a non-Jewish city, Nineveh, and which worked to save the city. Also, throughout, we note that this represents the “birthday” of the world, and its annual judgment of all its creations/creatures.
We see, then, that the three-month period from the beginning of the three weeks until Hoshana Rabbah is a progression from Introspection, Resolution and Action. One important realization, also, is that this process is not “once and done.” That is, while we intend that the resulting improvement in our action persists all year, we also accept that introspection and resolution is a persistent part of an ongoing cycle throughout the year. In fact, the MeAm Loez prescribes a daily process called “heshbon hanefesh”- self accountability, to essentially “turn the wheel” daily. The annual cycle, however, serves multiple purposes - one of focus on the underlying relationship between HaShem and the Jewish people, indeed the world - the acceptance of accountability, to commit ourselves to continuous introspection and improvement.
The second purpose is that this period rests on another principle, that of our interpersonal relationships. It is not only, not even mainly, one between us and HaShem - rather, the relationship between “man and man”- fellow Jews and humankind, is paramount. Our tradition emphasizes this through the understanding that our repentance and commitment to improve, even between us and HaShem, rests on our first achieving reconciliation/harmony with others.
Finally, during the Ten Days from Rosh Hashana to Yom Kippur, we greet each other with wishes for:
“Anyada Buena” – “a good year”- immediate success
“Tizku LeShanim Raboth (neimoth vetovoth)” - “may you merit many (pleasant and good) years”- a long and good life
“Tizkeh VeTichye VeTa-arich Yamim” - “may you merit and live with length of days”- live life to the fullest, that is, make time count, don’t just count time.
May we all merit all of the above, as we invest in our IRA…