August 2018

Of the Book

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The Core of the High Holidays

By Rabbi Daniel Bortz

After the special Hebrew month of Elul, we celebrate the High Holy Days, beginning with Rosh Hashanah, continuing through the Ten Days of Repentance, and reaching its apex on Yom Kippur. Between the prayer services and shofar blasts, rituals focused on starting fresh and having a sweet new year, fasting (including secret day dreams of break-fast meals), what is at the core of this unique time of the year?

What do you see when you look at a mirror? I imagine you might answer, “my face.” Or perhaps you’ll describe what surrounds you. You may be more specific and highlight your cheeks or your eyes. This is all true, on a certain level. But as the saying goes, “eyes are the windows to the soul.” When looking at ourselves and at others, we can choose to only see the outer physical features. But with extra effort and mindfulness, we can look beneath the surface, into the soul within. We are not bodies that contain souls; we are souls that inhabit bodies.

The Jewish mystics teach that during these holy days, we have a special ability to feel our souls, the essential energy within — our true selves. We generally identify ourselves with what we do, what we feel, and what we think. But none of these things define your core. Behind every experience is an “I” experiencing it. This is why we have the ability to change and right the ship, for our essence remains unscathed by any mud we’ve accumulated. A dusty diamond just needs to shake off the dirt.

Teshuva is usually translated as “repentance,” but the true translation is “return.” The Jewish view of Teshuva is revolutionary in religious belief systems; the idea that we are essentially pure and all we need to do is return to who we really are beneath it all. Your inner light can never be extinguished, no matter what you’ve done or gone through. The shofar blast symbolizes the deep cry of the soul, simple like a child. On these days we look to return to our core, our inner child, the way we were before we became jaded and anxious. When we had hopes and dreams for a better world and an inspiring, purposeful life. On Yom Kippur we have this special ability to tap into our souls and connect to our Source, looking past the usual reflection we see in the mirror and into the depth of our character, the pure good.

Rosh Hashanah paves the way for this experience, the day Adam and Eve were formed. On the Jewish New Year’s Eve, when the clock strikes a new year, we celebrate with a Divine kiss — a realization that you were lovingly brought to this world for a purpose. We remember that the same G-d who Created massive mountains and endless seas and galaxies beyond, looked at the universe and saw that it desperately needed one of you too. Let’s take some moments during this time to focus inward and beyond, looking at ourselves and others beyond the superficial, at the pristine being behind the body.

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