High Holy Day Torah readings tell the stories of our lives

Rather than moral direction and finger-pointing preaching of punishment, we are given stories.

ASK YOURSELF, ‘Can I do more? Can I be the best me that I can possibly be?’  (photo credit: NATI SHOHAT/FLASH90)
ASK YOURSELF, ‘Can I do more? Can I be the best me that I can possibly be?’
(photo credit: NATI SHOHAT/FLASH90)
The 10 days beginning with Rosh Hashanah and ending with the Tekia Gedola at the close of Yom Kippur are known as the Yamim Noraim, (Days of Awe). We are, presumably, meant to be in a state of agitation, anxiety and trepidation as we are each called to account in the Heavenly Tribunal.
As our fate hangs in the balance as the Books of Life and Death are opened, as Divine Mas Hachnasa peruses our file with a magnifying glass, how could we not tremble?
Indeed, it was (and in some quarters, still is) a custom to have pre-Rosh Hashanah gatherings where we would concentrate on the seriousness of the coming days and emotionally prepare to go before our Creator.
And yet, intense as the time may be, the High Holy Day Mahzor seems to offer a bit of a different message, one that is considerably more light-hearted than we might have imagined. This is best illustrated by the Torah readings that the rabbis selected for these days. You might have thought these readings would be filled with passages about teshuva, repentance, detailing the importance of mending our ways and the negative repercussions of sin. And yet, rather than moral direction and finger-pointing preaching of punishment, we are given stories. Grand stories of pivotal events in our history, captivating tales of our biblical heroes and the trials and tribulations they faced.
On Rosh Hashanah, we first read of the birth of Isaac, a miraculous event that occurred when Abraham was 100 and Sarah was 90. Also included is mother Sarah’s directive to banish Ishmael and Hagar to the desert, and their own miraculous rescue. We then read about Hannah’s excruciating ordeal to bear a child of her own, her heartfelt outreach to God – misconstrued by the High Priest as a drunken rant – and her song of thanks and praise, which becomes the model for all of Jewish prayer to come.
On second day Rosh Hashanah, we listen to the momentous, mysterious saga of the Akeida, Abraham’s near-sacrifice of his future heir, raising thorny theological problems that will eternally be debated. We also will witness the uplifting prediction of Redemption proclaimed by Jeremiah – the prophet of the Destruction – and hear the voice of mother Rachel, whose tears on behalf of her children sway God and evoke His promise of Israel’s future glory and return from Exile to our own land.
Later, on Yom Kippur, we will recount the dramatic journey of Jonah, whose vain efforts at escape from service and evasion of responsibility result in a master-class about the inevitability of God and our intense, inescapable role in the universe.
The lessons of these iconic stories should not be lost on us. They are meant to inspire us, to strengthen us when we are in despair and to guide us when we are lost. Are there seemingly insurmountable challenges facing us? Do others doubt our ability to succeed, and do we doubt ourselves? Well, think of Abraham and Sarah and Hannah, and the mountains they climbed to fulfill their mission, against all odds.
Are we frustrated with our failures, on a personal or national level? Do we worry endlessly what will be from this pesky virus, or the vicious enemies that threaten us? Then remember Jeremiah and Rachel, who stared disaster in the face and remained secure in their hope for the days to come. And if we wonder - “Why am I here on the Earth, is it by design or accident of birth?” – think of Jonah, who learns that each one of us has a crucial role and a part to play in the grander scheme of history.
But there is yet one more purpose to accompanying these days with classic stories from our celebrated past. I suggest that God is calling out to us to take time to review the stories of our own lives. For if we are to move ourselves forward, to connect to a higher purpose, then we need to remember how we got to where we are today by replaying our own history.
This is an exercise I urge each of you to take. Go to a quiet place and close your eyes. Think back to your earliest times, to your childhood experiences, the schools you attended, the friends you made, the loves you made and lost. Travel through the twists and turns of your personal experience, revisiting the good times as well as the difficult ones as you slowly wind you way toward today. Ask yourself the hard questions: What good decisions did I make that brought me here, and what choices did I make that I regret, that might have brought me somewhere else? Where did I go right, and where did I go wrong, and can I do anything about it now? Was there a debt left unpaid, a promise left unfulfilled? Do I appreciate all those who helped me along my path, and have I shown my thanks and gratitude to them?
Most of all, ask yourself, “Can I do more? Can I be the best me that I can possibly be?” Isn’t that, when all is said and done, what God really wants and expects of us?
In this most unusual year of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur in the shadow of corona, the rabbis have ruled that prayers can – and, in many cases, must – be streamlined and shortened. That’s a blessing; it will give us even more free time to read the greatest book that we’ll ever write – the story of our lives.
The writer is director of the Jewish Outreach Center of Ra’anana.