Yom Kippur, 2023: A Day of Awe

22 September 2023

Since the middle ages, the long Jewish holiday season that begins with Rosh Hashanah has been called Ha-Yamim Ha-Noraim, or the “Days of Awe”. This term seems especially appropriate in our current political moment. How else to describe the mortal threat to democracy, civil society, and the rule of law in Israel if not as “Awesome” or “Awful”? 

But these same words convey a different meaning in the heart of the Jewish spiritual tradition.  The central prayer in the Mahzor for the Rosh Hashanah declares: We shall ascribe holiness to this day. For it is awesome and terrible. What is “awesome and terrible” in the prayer is not the unleashing of destructive forces as we see today, but the sense of terror – the mixture of fear and possibility which comes from immersing ourselves in introspection – that we feel as we approach Yom Kippur. By reflecting on our past actions, we have the possibility to overcome old habits and forge new paths.  The notion of “awe” induces humility that allows for meaningful repentance, or teshuva.

In this current season, we not only feel the awe and inspiration of the protest movement, which we and our allies have sustained for 37 weeks in a row.  We must also use the moment of introspection to move beyond self-satisfaction to confront our own inadequacies:

  •       How did we fail to prevent the rise of a pure and toxic Jewish supremacy whose representatives are powerful ministers in the current government?
  •       How did we permit the younger generation of Jews in Israel to become more racist than its parents’ generation?
  •       How have we learned to live, for 56 years, with the occupation, which brutalizes and dehumanizes Palestinians every day?

A genuine introspection requires that we confront our own failings. And genuine repentance grants us agency to address our deficiencies and make improvements to our character and behavior.  Repentance leads to responsibility, and in Hebrew, the word for responsibility – achariyut – begins with the same letters – alef, chet, and resh, which together make up the word acher or “other.” Responsibility is always interpersonal. As we emerge from the season of teshuva, may we recall the famous statement of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel that “in a free society, some are guilty, but all are responsible.”  

May we remember the other, whom we’ve often forgotten (even in the dizzying movement of protest), as well as those whom we’ve vilified and reduced to stereotypes. And may we write a new chapter in the long annals of the Jewish people, one marked by an unrelenting commitment to justice, equality, and democracy. 


G’mar Chatima Tova – May you be inscribed in the book of life.