In the spirit of the holidays I want to begin tonight by telling you I’ve been wrong. I’ve been wrong about a lot of things this year. If you want to know exactly how much you can ask my children, they’ll tell you hundreds of ways I’ve been wrong. But tonight I want to tell you about one specific thing that I did wrong.
I’ve been calling these days by the wrong name. In our conversations, in my writing, from the pulpit and even on my devices. If you wanted to find my sermons and intros on my computer you’d find them in a folder labeled High Holidays. I’ve been calling them that forever even though I know that’s not actually their name except maybe in Colorado or Humboldt County or the East Village.
But if you asked me spontaneously to name the feeling, the experience we have tonight I don’t think it would be something so clinical, so vague, and so emotionless as the ”High Holidays”. The feel of this evening, in this moment, at this late hour is far more suited to their proper name Yamim Noraim. Days of Awe. Days of Fear. There is indeed something awesome and fearful about being here in the dark, the majestic intimacy of the sanctuary like this and the traditional soaring music. It is awe-some. It is intimidating.
The first line of the Psalm for these Days of Awe begins Le David Adonai Ori ve Yishei Mimi Irah. Adonai Meoz Chayayi Mimi Efchad. Adonai is my light and my salvation, For God I have Yir’ah. The Midrash says that we read Psalm 27 on the Days of Awe because of the words Ori and Yish’ei. God is my light on Rosh Hashanah and my salvation on Yom Kippur when God allows all my sins to be forgiven. But additionally, Yir’ah, a sense of awe, is at the heart of these days.
Language by its very nature is limiting. We use it to depict a feeling, an experience, but it is descriptive and can often fail to capture that which we seek to describe. I think that is the case with the phrase High Holidays. Jewishly and personally, these days are meant to be peak Jewish experiences; our highs. But High Holidays make them sound silly, sanitized and tonight and these days are anything but. How can one see the Torah mantles changed to white and know that 5779 is hurtling towards its end and feel anything but awe and fear and excitement? That in just 8 days we will stand here once again on the limen of the new year and be forced to examine our innermost selves and the people we were this past year.
This “New Year” thing is a curious fiction, isn’t it? The hoopla we make on the first of Tishrei at the new moon is a tad over the top for what is actually just one more tick of the clock.
But this annual ritual allows us to imagine that maybe, just maybe, we’re on the threshold of something new and better. And some of our imaginings might come true, depending on what we do.
It’s probably time we dropped the anglicized, Christian sounding names for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, High Holy Days and reverted to their Jewish names, Yamim Noraim – Awesome days or Days of Awe. These are days of anxiety, trepidation, humility and soul searching. These are the connotations we want, not the confetti throwing, champagne sipping, TV broadcast connotations of High Holy Days or New Year. (Parker J. Palmer December 31, 2018 )
I love Selichot night, even though it begins long after my usual bedtime. It never fails to touch me. But I wouldn’t say that it fills me with “joy” with a feeling of being “high.” I fear that annual look into the state of my soul and the way my sins and failings will be laid bare. Frankly, I’d rather not engage in self-reflection, that fills me with awe and dread. An awe that is far more in keeping with the name Yamim Noraim.
So in the spirit of the season, I am trying to make a change; a change in how I speak about and how I think about these days. I hereby give you permission to correct me when I slip up and help keep me on track.
As instructed in the text of our Machzor, let us use our words to make meaning for ourselves and for others as we enter into these Yamim Noraim.