About a year ago, I had a conversation with a friend in which he described the way he had experienced his life to that point. He said it felt as if he were a passenger on a train, and that being on a train meant there was a set destination and stops along the way, and absolutely no deviation from the proscribed course. It wasn't that he was unhappy with the direction; it wasn't that he regretted any stop he had made along the way. What bothered him was a particular moment of realization: he wasn't sure what was driving the engines or even if he wanted to continue on that particular track.
Whenever we hear someone addressing their fundamental challenges in life, we cannot help but personalize it on some level. For me, I imagined the moment when Wile E. Coyote discovers he is about 15 feet off the edge of a cliff and still running as if he were on solid ground. The thing about this image is that it not only made me nostalgic for my childhood, it struck a chord deep inside. And it made me feel anxious and, on some level, uncomfortable.
In her Yom Kippur sermon last year, my colleague, teacher, and friend Rabbi Abby Treu introduced me to the work of Kathryn Schultz, the author of Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error. Schultz writes about this feeling, and makes a distinction between being wrong and the moment when you recognize that you are wrong. Being wrong is easy, she says: most of the time when we are wrong, we don't actually realize it. We tend to live in the present—we actually prefer to live in the present. We spend much of our time calendaring the present, planning for it, and feeling just fine and right about what we are doing. We live in the present not only individually, but collectively.
What Schultz describes is the Wile E. Coyote moment—when we discover that we have made an error and begin to plummet to the canyon floor—that changes our attitudes and makes us realize that we are not running on solid ground anymore.
The Yamim Nora'im are filled with these moments, and the Torah readings and liturgy inspire us to step outside of ourselves and recognize when we are not on solid ground.
During the Avodah service on Yom Kippur, the high priest—atoning first for his personal sins, for the ones of his family, and finally for the entire people—uses a sacrificial goat to bear the burden of the sins of the people. The high priest confesses those sins over the head of the goat and then sends it off into the wilderness where, channeling Wile E. Coyote, it walks over the edge of a cliff. This temple ritual that led to the expiation from sin is one that brought great joy at the end of the day to the people of Israel. They completed the rite to every last detail and were forgiven by God. For reassurance, a crimson thread turned white so that the people knew that God had accepted their sacrifice. However, by sending the goat to the wilderness, the people never watched it go over the edge. They never saw that it—and they—are not on solid ground, and they did not actually confront the harsh reality of being wrong. What we read in the Torah portion is the celebration that follows, sending the goat away—not the teshuvah that should accompany the experience of recognizing their mistakes.
The liturgy of the Yamim Nora'im is more deliberate and less gentle with us. With its grand metaphors and humbling language, we cannot help but respond with angst.
Nowhere is this more palpable than in the Unetaneh Tokef. We begin by speaking of the power of the days—their awe and power intentionally alarm us. We first stand as the accused on trial, confronted with anything we—willingly or unwillingly, knowingly or unknowingly—have done. As sheep being examined by our shepherd, we are left even without a voice to defend our behavior. We are reviewed, numbered, and counted, judged according to our worth. If that were not enough to get us to look down and examine our footing, the laundry list of fates that strike fear in our hearts, minds, and souls certainly are. Through a cycle of metaphors, the key liturgical piece of the Yamim Nora'im explicitly tells us we are not on solid ground.
So what do we do when we are confronted with the reality that the ground has vanished beneath us?
The Slonimer Rebbe Shalom Noah Berezovsky addresses this directly in his opening commentary on the Yamim Nora'im. First, the Slonimer raises the question of how Rosh Hashanah became Yom ha-Din, the Day of Judgment. He asks why we take a holiday that is, on its textual level, a happy occasion and fill it with such dread. The Slonimer responds that God's sovereignty and imagery of the creation of the world intentionally elicit feelings of anxiety and dread. Notably, the refrain in our 'Amidah throughout the Yamim Nora'im directly references the fear and awe we should feel on these days.
Adonai our God, instill Your awe in all You have made, and fear of You in all You have created, so that all You have fashioned revere You, all You have created bow in recognition, and all be bound together, carrying out Your will wholeheartedly. (Mahzor Lev Shalem 321)
The liturgical emphasis on anxiety is intentional, the Slonimer states. And the purpose of the language and metaphors is what we read in the last line: that we should carry out God's Will wholeheartedly. This focus on God's Will is designed to make us look down to see if we are still standing on solid ground.
The Yamim Nora'im intentionally push us over the edge. At this time of renewal and introspection, we are forced to see that the ground below us is gone. At this moment—vulnerable, uncomfortable, and anxious—we are inspired to renew our sense of purpose.
May we embrace the anxiety that the Yamim Nora'im elicits in us, and, renewing our sense of purpose, return quickly to solid ground.The publication and distribution of the JTS Commentary are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z"l) Hassenfeld.