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Rosh Hashanah began last Thursday evening. For Jews, this two-day holiday celebrates the beginning of a new year, evoking the creation of the world and the dawn of time. It is a holiday of new beginnings, and for this reason fittingly opens ten Days of Awe or High Holy Days, a season of repentance that allows one to make a new beginning in the eyes of God.
By one way of thinking (and among the rabbis there is never only one way of thinking), Rosh Hashanah marks the opening of the books of life. God writes our names (or at least the names of his chosen people) into these books: some to live, others to die, some to live good lives, others to live bad lives. During the next ten days fasting, prayer, petitions, and good deeds can change these divine decrees. Then, on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement that brings the High Holy Days to a close, the books of life are shut.
Because many Christians see Judaism through the prism of New Testament polemics against the Pharisees, we too often imagine that all this talk about books of life amounts to a religious view based on a cosmic bank account, with Jews engaging in rituals that make deposits, manipulating God from a distance and thus earning them their way into heaven. Jews, we think, are legalistic, engaged in a tit-for-tat relationship with God, spirituality based on external commandments rather than one that encourages us to commune with him in an intimate, spiritual way.
My wife is Jewish, and so I have many reasons to resist this reductive caricature of Jewish piety and practice. But I’ll put them aside and focus on my own experiences during the Days of Awe. I usually go with my wife to the synagogue during the High Holy Days. When I do, I find myself encountering a God who looms above as the very author of all things, the arbiter of life and death, and the awesome judge of men—and the God who opens himself to human influence, draws near to see our gestures, hear our prayers, and heed our petitions. I’ve felt this tense spiritual atmosphere of divine transcendence and intimacy with an especial power on Yom Kippur.
Jews mark days from sunset to sunset, and thus Yom Kippur begins in the evening. Known as Kol Nidre (“all vows”), the initial service opens with a solemn call for a court, both in heaven and on earth, to come into session. A petition is then put forward, one that has long perplexed me. The petition asks the court for release from all future vows, promises, and pledges.
It is conceptually odd. In what sense can one make a promise in the future if one has petitioned in advance for that promise not to be taken as a promise? The Jewish tradition interprets the petition of Kol Nidre to refer exclusively to vows made to God; nonetheless, the problem remains. What sense does it make for me to ask God in advance not to hold me to my vows? Why not just refrain from making the vows in the first place?
Moreover, this odd petition, presented in the legal context of formally constituted court, comes by way of heart-rending chants. There is not the slightest legalism in the music, which is among the most cherished in the Jewish tradition. Instead, it rings with desperate pleas. The chants sigh and sob. Jews do not kneel to pray; they stand. But in haunting melody of the Kol Nidre, I’ve found my Christian soul driven to its knees.
Therein, perhaps, lies the resolution to the paradox. It is as if the cantor and congregation were saying, “O Lord, I am a precipitous, presumptuous, impetuous fool. Please see that my eager spiritual efforts in the year to come are as likely to be motivated by vanity as obedience, self-interest as devotion.” As far as this Gentile can tell, the spiritual meaning of the Kol Nidre petition accords with the petition I make before I approach the altar to receive communion: “Lord, I am not worthy to receive you, but only say the word and I shall be healed.”
Yom Kippur ends with a service known as Ne’ilah (“closing the gate”). The doors to the sanctuary that hold the Torah scrolls are opened, a ritual gesture akin to the exposition of the Blessed Sacrament. For an hour the congregation stands as the liturgy returns again and again to variations on a single theme: “The doors are closing, the doors are closing.” The shadows lengthen. The half-light of impeding darkness gathers around the synagogue. The atmosphere becomes urgent. God, our Lord and Judge, beckons us to repent, but not forever. Death is nearer than we think. Time is short. The doors are closing.
It is not easy to stand in one place for an hour, and over the years when I have been with my wife at the Ne’ilah service, I have found that it is even less easy to confront my own spiritual immobility. The doors are closing, and yet I hesitate. I have a career and mortgage payments and college tuitions to think about. Repentance? That can come later, or so I often think.
Grace abounds, but as modern Christians I fear that we presume upon God’s mercy. Jesus issued a dire warning to those of us who imagine that we can tarry, putting off the real changes required by true repentance until after we get our worldly lives in order: “No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.” I should be casting aside the luggage of life and running to enter the kingdom of God. I strain, I desire to purify my soul. But I take my hand off the plow. I look back.
I am Christian and not Jewish. I have no real grasp of Hebrew and I only vaguely follow the prayers in my wife’s synagogue. Yet, in the final moments of Yom Kippur I have felt a terrible anguish, yearning to move, and yet immobile, wanting to rush to God’s side and yet nailed to my worldly life. I have shuddered as cantor cries out: “The doors are closing; the doors are closing.” For in those haunting words I hear Jesus saying: “Repent, for the Kingdom of God is at hand.”
R.R. Reno is Editor of First Things. He is the general editor of the Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible and author of the volume on Genesis. His previous “On the Square” articles can be found here.
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