An 8-Step Journey Through the High Holy Days with a Musical Lens

Finding Your Space : Achat Sha’alti

 

We begin with a niggun, a wordless melody, grounding us and preparing us for the spiritual work ahead. The words that follow are verses from Psalm 27, traditionally read daily during the month of Elul, preceding the High Holy Days. The psalmist speaks to a universal yearning, a desire to be close to the Eternal One, to dwell in a place filled with sweetness and delight.

Praise: Bar’chu

 

Before we begin to praise, we check in with ourselves: Am I awake? Am I prepared?
Before we begin to praise, we check in with God: Can you hear my voice? Can you understand? We arrive at a moment when we feel ready to pray. The unmistakable melody of Bar’chu reminds us that this is no ordinary time. The High Holy Days have arrived.

Setting Intentions: Kol Nidre

 

Every year, we set our intentions for how we want to behave. We make promises to ourselves, to others, and to God. We do our best to uphold them but sometimes we fall short. Kol Nidre recognizes that we are only human, annulling vows we make to God in good faith but are unable to uphold. Notably, the statement does not apply to obligations we make to other human beings.

Vulnerability: Untaneh Tokef

 

Untaneh Tokef is perhaps the most haunting piece of Jewish liturgy. The words break down all of our illusions and strip us bare. We recognize the truth that life is far more fragile than we like to believe. We do not know who will live and who will die, but we recognize our own vulnerability and our own mortality.

Majesty: Avinu Malkeinu

 

Judaism’s understanding of God is multitudinous, with infinite metaphors implemented to comprehend that which is beyond comprehension. Avinu Malkeinu asks us to see God in two starkly different ways simultaneously. God is presented as both a parent and a sovereign ruler. We pour out our hearts to a God who is compassionate, intimate, grand, and powerful, all at the same time.

Forgiveness: Ashamnu

 

At the core of our Yom Kippur experience is the vidui, or confession. We speak in the plural as we enumerate all of the collective wrongs we have committed over the past year. Although every individual may not have participated in these transgressions, we take communal responsibility for the ways our society has missed the mark.

Closing of the Gates: N’ilah Sh’ma

 

At the very end of Yom Kippur comes the N’ilah service. We imagine standing before gates which slowly begin to close before us. We feel a sense of urgency as we seek to ensure our prayers are heard. The day was long and we are exhausted. With our last ounce of energy, we present our authentic selves, with nothing but prayer on our lips.

Shofar: Shofar Blast

 

There is nothing like the blast of a shofar. It is a primal call, an alarming burst of sound, invigorating our bodies and rousing our souls. In some ways , it is more powerful than all the words of our liturgy combined. The sound of the shofar urges us to awaken to the serious challenges we face both individually and collectively, to rise up, and to act.