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

Finding Your Space : How Awesome is This Place!

Genesis 8:16-18

Jacob awoke from his slumber and said, “Surely God is present in this place, and I did not know it!”
In awe, he exclaimed, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gateway to heaven.”
Early in the morning, Jacob took the stone that he had put under his head and set it up as a pillar and poured oil on the top of it.

וַיִּיקַץ יַעֲקֹב מִשְּׁנָתוֹ וַיֹּאמֶר אָכֵן יֵשׁ יְהוָה בַּמָּקוֹם הַזֶּה וְאָנֹכִי לֹא יָדָעְתִּי׃
וַיִּירָא וַיֹּאמַר מַה־נּוֹרָא הַמָּקוֹם הַזֶּה אֵין זֶה כִּי אִם־בֵּית אֱלֹהִים וְזֶה שַׁעַר הַשָּׁמָיִם׃
וַיַּשְׁכֵּם יַעֲקֹב בַּבֹּקֶר וַיִּקַּח אֶת־הָאֶבֶן אֲשֶׁר־שָׂם מְרַאֲשֹׁתָיו וַיָּשֶׂם אֹתָהּ מַצֵּבָה וַיִּצֹק שֶׁמֶן עַל־רֹאשָׁהּ

 

Jacob’s night vision of God and the angels ascending and descending from the heavens transforms a maqom, a generic place, into beit elohim, the house of God. Jacob recognizes the ever-present nature of God, and he sanctifies the encounter by anointing the now holy place with oil. A stone becomes a temple, a home becomes a sanctuary. We can find meaningful prayer space everywhere as we seek and are sought by God’s presence.

Praise: Praise God!

Psalm 150

Hallelujah! Praise God in God’s sanctuary; praise God in the sky, God’s stronghold!

Praise God for God’s mighty acts; praise God for God’s exceeding greatness!

Praise God with blasts of the horn; praise God with harp and lyre!

Praise God with timbrel and dance; praise God with lute and pipe!

Praise God with resounding cymbals; praise God with loud-clashing cymbals!

Let all that breathes praise God! Hallelujah!

הַלְלוּ יָהּ הַלְלוּ־אֵל בְּקָדְשׁוֹ הַלְלוּהוּ בִּרְקִיעַ עֻזּוֹ׃

הַלְלוּהוּ בִגְבוּרֹתָיו הַלְלוּהוּ כְּרֹב גֻּדְלוֹ׃

הַלְלוּהוּ בְּתֵקַע שׁוֹפָר הַלְלוּהוּ בְּנֵבֶל וְכִנּוֹר׃

הַלְלוּהוּ בְתֹף וּמָחוֹל הַלְלוּהוּ בְּמִנִּים וְעוּגָב׃

הַלְלוּהוּ בְצִלְצְלֵי־שָׁמַע הַלְלוּהוּ בְּצִלְצְלֵי תְרוּעָה׃

כֹּל הַנְּשָׁמָה תְּהַלֵּל יָהּ הַלְלוּ־יָהּ׃

 

Psalm 150 marks the last text in the Book of Psalms, and it makes for quite the finale. The song implores each and every one of us to offer praise to God. The listing of sacred instruments summons the assembly of a holy symphony with which to create the most passionate (and loudest) prayer possible. Psalm 150 remains a staple of our morning liturgy, and invites the reader to think about the many meaningful ways in which an individual can enthusiastically offer gratitude.

Setting Intentions: “Why are You Here?” Asks the Still Small Voice

1 Kings 19:11-13

“Come out,” God called, “and stand on the mountain before the Divine.” And behold, God passed by. There was a great and mighty wind, splitting mountains and shattering rocks by the power of God; but God was not in the wind. After the wind—an earthquake; but God was not in the earthquake.

After the earthquake—fire; but God was not in the fire. And after the fire—a soft sound of stillness.

And when Elijah heard it, he wrapped his mantle about his face and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. Then a voice addressed him: “Why are you here, Elijah?”

וַיֹּאמֶר צֵא וְעָמַדְתָּ בָהָר לִפְנֵי יְהוָה וְהִנֵּה יְהוָה עֹבֵר וְרוּחַ גְּדוֹלָה וְחָזָק מְפָרֵק הָרִים וּמְשַׁבֵּר סְלָעִים לִפְנֵי יְהוָה לֹא בָרוּחַ יְהוָה וְאַחַר הָרוּחַ רַעַשׁ לֹא בָרַעַשׁ יְהוָה׃

וְאַחַר הָרַעַשׁ אֵשׁ לֹא בָאֵשׁ יְהוָה וְאַחַר הָאֵשׁ קוֹל דְּמָמָה דַקָּה׃

וַיְהִי כִּשְׁמֹעַ אֵלִיָּהוּ וַיָּלֶט פָּנָיו בְּאַדַּרְתּוֹ וַיֵּצֵא וַיַּעֲמֹד פֶּתַח הַמְּעָרָה וְהִנֵּה אֵלָיו קוֹל וַיֹּאמֶר מַה־לְּךָ פֹה אֵלִיָּהוּ

 

As Elijah stands before God, he bears witness to God’s awesome majesty as displayed through powerful feats of the natural world. But the text teaches that despite these grandiose moments being caused by the power of God, God’s true presence was not in the wind, the rock, the earthquake, or the fire. Instead, God speaks to Elijah in the stillness which follows, which many have interpreted as a voice coming from within the prophet himself.

The High Holy Days elicit a wide spectrum of energies throughout the Days of Awe, and great moments of physicality as we sing, pray, beat our chests, prostrate, and fast. These outward expressions of faith must be balanced by an internal recognition, a dedicated listening for the sacred sounds of stillness which speak to us as individuals. Only then might we hear a voice, challenging us to focus and reflect on the question “Why are you here?”

Vulnerability: Who Am I?

Exodus 3:11-12

But Moses said to God, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and free the Israelites from Egypt?”

And God said, “I will be with you; that shall be your sign that it was I who sent you. And when you have freed the people from Egypt, you shall worship God at this mountain.”

וַיֹּאמֶר מֹשֶׁה אֶל־הָאֱלֹהִים מִי אָנֹכִי כִּי אֵלֵךְ אֶל־פַּרְעֹה וְכִי אוֹצִיא אֶת־בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל מִמִּצְרָיִם׃

וַיֹּאמֶר כִּי־אֶהְיֶה עִמָּךְ וְזֶה־לְּךָ הָאוֹת כִּי אָנֹכִי שְׁלַחְתִּיךָ בְּהוֹצִיאֲךָ אֶת־הָעָם מִמִּצְרַיִם תַּעַבְדוּן אֶת־הָאֱלֹהִים עַל הָהָר הַזֶּה

 

Here Moses introduces us to the concept of the reluctant prophet. In the initial moments of his Divine call to action, he feels uncertain and unworthy of the mission asked of him by God. In his unwillingness to act, Moses expresses a vulnerability rooted in the errors of his past which cloud his self-confidence. But in his greatest moment of self-doubt, Moses is reassured that God will support him and all of B’nei Yisrael throughout their journey from bondage to freedom.

Majesty: Laying the Earth’s Foundations

Job 38:4-13

Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundations?
Speak if you have understanding.
Do you know who fixed its dimensions,
or who measured it with a line?
Onto what were its bases sunk,
or who set its cornerstone
when the morning stars sang together,
and all the divine beings shouted for joy?
Who closed the sea behind doors,
when it gushed forth out of the womb,
when I clothed it in clouds,
a think darkness its swaddling band?
I made breakers My limit for it,
and set up its bar and doors.
And said, “You may come so far and no farther;
here your surging waves will stop.”
Have you ever commanded the day to break,
Assigned the dawn its place,
so that it seizes the corners of the earth
and shakes the wicked out of it?

אֵיפֹה הָיִיתָ בְּיָסְדִי־אָרֶץ הַגֵּד אִם־יָדַעְתָּ בִינָה׃

מִי־שָׂם מְמַדֶּיהָ כִּי תֵדָע אוֹ מִי־נָטָה עָלֶיהָ קָּו׃

עַל־מָה אֲדָנֶיהָ הָטְבָּעוּ אוֹ מִי־יָרָה אֶבֶן פִּנָּתָהּ׃

בְּרָן־יַחַד כּוֹכְבֵי בֹקֶר וַיָּרִיעוּ כָּל־בְּנֵי אֱלֹהִים׃

וַיָּסֶךְ בִּדְלָתַיִם יָם בְּגִיחוֹ מֵרֶחֶם יֵצֵא׃

בְּשׂוּמִי עָנָן לְבֻשׁוֹ וַעֲרָפֶל חֲתֻלָּתוֹ׃

וָאֶשְׁבֹּר עָלָיו חֻקִּי וָאָשִׂים בְּרִיחַ וּדְלָתָיִם׃

וָאֹמַר עַד־פֹּה תָבוֹא וְלֹא תֹסִיף וּפֹא־יָשִׁית בִּגְאוֹן גַּלֶּיךָ׃

הְמִיָּמֶיךָ צִוִּיתָ בֹּקֶר ידעתה שחר [יִדַּעְתָּה] [הַשַּׁחַר] מְקֹמוֹ׃

לֶאֱחֹז בְּכַנְפוֹת הָאָרֶץ וְיִנָּעֲרוּ רְשָׁעִים מִמֶּנָּה

 

 

At the end of the Book of Job, God answer’s Job’s mournful plea for a fair trial with God. God answers Job’s call appearing in the form of a whirlwind, a powerful natural phenomenon, evoking the awesome mystery and creative power of the universe which in so many ways defies definition. God’s voice from amidst the whirlwind fills Job and his companions with hope; that even in the most uncertain tumultuous times, God has the power to appear and restore order.

God points out to Job that the world exists infinitely far beyond Job’s chronological and geographical conceptions. God describes a tour of the known universe from its very beginnings highlighting God’s awesome power and challenging Job with rhetorical questions which remind the human that he is but an infinitesimally small element of the grander universe.

And yet, God nonetheless speaks to Job, answering the call of the suffering individual. Majesty and intimacy in one moment, that is the awesome power of God.

Forgiveness: Have Mercy Upon Me

Psalm 51:3-6, 17-19

Have mercy upon me, O God, as befits Your faithfulness; in keeping with Your abundant compassion, blot out my transgressions. 

Wash me thoroughly of my iniquity, and purify me of my sin; 

for I recognize my transgressions, and am ever conscious of my sin. 

Against You alone have I sinned, and done what is evil in Your sight; so You are just in Your sentence, and right in Your judgment. 


Adonai, open my lips, and let my mouth declare Your praise. 

You do not want me to bring sacrifices; You do not desire burnt offerings; 

True sacrifice to God is a remorseful spirit; God, You will not despise a contrite and crushed heart. 

 

חָנֵּנִי אֱלֹהִים כְּחַסְדֶּךָ כְּרֹב רַחֲמֶיךָ מְחֵה פְשָׁעָי׃  

הרבה הֶרֶב כַּבְּסֵנִי מֵעֲוֺנִי וּמֵחַטָּאתִי טַהֲרֵנִי׃  

כִּי־פְשָׁעַי אֲנִי אֵדָע וְחַטָּאתִי נֶגְדִּי תָמִיד׃  

לְךָ לְבַדְּךָ חָטָאתִי וְהָרַע בְּעֵינֶיךָ עָשִׂיתִי לְמַעַן תִּצְדַּק בְּדָבְרֶךָ תִּזְכֶּה בְשָׁפְטֶךָ׃  

אֲדֹנָי שְׂפָתַי תִּפְתָּח וּפִי יַגִּיד תְּהִלָּתֶךָ׃  

כִּי לֹא־תַחְפֹּץ זֶבַח וְאֶתֵּנָה עוֹלָה לֹא תִרְצֶה׃  

זִבְחֵי אֱלֹהִים רוּחַ נִשְׁבָּרָה לֵב־נִשְׁבָּר וְנִדְכֶּה אֱלֹהִים לֹא תִבְזֶה׃  

 

Tormented by the guilt of his sins of murder and adultery surrounding his pursuit of Bathsheba, King David authors this psalm seeking mercy and forgiveness from God. The text creates the imagery of sin as a stain; a mark that, with proper prayer and repentance, can be removed from the individual. The second half of this psalm begins with the familiar verse we use to open the Amidah, as we pray for the ability to authentically express our deepest, most heartfelt emotions in prayer. David believes that true t’shuva is found not through prescribed and perfunctory sacrifice, but through the pain and acknowledgment of one who has done wrong and seeks to make right. 

Closing of the Gates: Adonai Alone is God!

1 Kings 18:39

When they saw this, all the people flung themselves on their faces and cried out: “Adonai alone is God, Adonai alone is God!”

 

וַיַּרְא כָּל־הָעָם וַיִּפְּלוּ עַל־פְּנֵיהֶם וַיֹּאמְרוּ יְהוָה הוּא הָאֱלֹהִים יְהוָה הוּא הָאֱלֹהִים

 

1 Kings 18:39

In the final moments of the final prayer service of Yom Kippur, this line “Adonai, hu haElohim” is repeated seven times in a row as we enthusiastically exhaust any energy and prayerfulness we have left. The text comes from another moment of ecstatic celebration concerning the prophet Elijah. Elijah had challenged 450 the priests of Baal (a Canaanite God) to prove that indeed Adonai was the one and only true God. The challenge called for both deities to ignite and burn a sacrifice on a soaking wet altar. Baal did not respond to the prayers of the priests, but “the fire of Adonai fell and burned up the sacrifice” (I Kings 18:38). The Israelites’ realization and affirmation of the miraculous power of God has become our affirmation for the power and wonder which we experience at the close of Yom Kippur.

Shofar: Judgement and Mercy

Ramban’s Commentary on Psalm 47:6

God ascends amidst blasting; YHWH, to the voice of the Shofar.

 

עָלָה אֱלֹהִים בִּתְרוּעָה יְהֹוָה בְּקוֹל שׁוֹפָר

 

 

The medieval sage Nachmanides draws attention to the two names of God used within this verse. In the first half of the phrase, Elohim connotes justice or judgement. The second half refers to YHWH, often associated with the attribute of mercy. Elohim/judgement connects to the t’ruah call of the Shofar.

When the shofar is blown, the tekiah call both precedes and follows the t’ruah call. It is as a reminder that God’s judgement, on this Day of Judgement, is nonetheless enveloped in mercy.