The Spirit and the Challenge of Renewal and Return: The High Holy Days, a Classical Reform Perspective

By Rabbi Howard A. Berman

October 3, 2011


The High Holy Days offer each of us an opportunity for a powerful spiritual experience. For the sensitive, attentive individual, open in mind and heart to the transforming themes of this sacred season, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur can be an inspiring reaffirmation of personal faith and spiritual quest. Even for those whose faith is less defined, or whose spirituality is more ambivalent, these timeless observances can be deeply meaningful. The complex connections of emotional stirrings, intellectual challenge and the aesthetic interplay of the language and music of worship, all have the potential to be a compelling and renewing encounter with the Jewish tradition. The cadence of familiar words and phrases, the strains of ancient and well-loved melodies, the experience of coming together as loved ones and friends in community, are all elements that combine, significantly affecting people of different backgrounds and practices.

For the Classical Reform tradition in particular, this counterpoint of emotion and intellect is a primary focus. Whereas this season might otherwise be perceived as a time of nostalgic memories and vaguely felt cultural ties, our worship — expressing the themes and messages of this season in our own language, reflecting our contemporary understandings — squarely confronts us with the deeper meanings and life-transforming challenges that these holy days are meant to embody. Throughout the course of the development of Reform liturgy over the past two centuries, the timeless and transcendent themes of repentance and renewal have been expressed in stirring words that reflect ancient concepts in compelling new ways.

The first of these themes is the central message of Rosh Hashanah, that the New Year should be a time of change, of transformation and of renewal. This ancient celebration offers us the precious gift of new beginnings and unexplored paths for our journeys. As one of the oldest New Year festivals still being observed in the world today, Rosh Hashanah proclaims Judaism’s revolutionary teaching that history is not cyclical and static — as other ancient cultures believed — but rather that human experience is dynamic and evolutionary, always progressing toward new heights and greater understandings of Divine truth. For each of us, personally, this means that we need not be bound by the limitations, patterns and regrets of the past. There is always an opportunity to make a fresh start, and begin anew. The liturgy and symbolism of this festival has always pointed to this recurring theme. At this sacred time, we are given the precious gift of the opportunity of new beginnings, of fresh starts, the hope of growth and broader horizons, as we seek to renew ourselves and our world.

Rosh Hashanah is traditionally regarded as the anniversary of Creation, the birthday of the world, and holds out to us the promise of creative new possibilities in the year ahead. Judaism has always taught that we are partners with God in the continuous unfolding of Creation, each with our unique role to play in bringing the world to its full potential. On this birthday of Creation, we are called to renew our energies and commitment as we each do our own part. This idea has transforming power — for who among us crosses the milestone of the turning of the year, fully satisfied with where we are? There are always unfinished agendas, unmet goals, unfulfilled hopes and dreams. And, while we are called to gratefully reflect on what we have accomplished and all the good we have experienced and achieved, there are forever new horizons to strive for. This call for renewal and change is proclaimed to us both individually, in our personal lives, and collectively, as a congregation, as a community and indeed as a nation. Yes, every moral and ethical ideal of the High Holy Days calls us to change and renewal as a nation at this challenging time of conflict and polarization.

If renewal and celebration of the promise of the future are the primary motifs of Rosh Hashanah, then it is the message of repentance and return that pervades the mood of Yom Kippur. The Day of Atonement challenges us to look within ourselves, to reflect upon the past year of our lives, in light of all the goodness, all the vast potential within us. We are called to the shared confession and confrontation of our failures to live up to the best within us. Not to wallow in guilt, but to gain clarity so that we can undertake the healing process of atonement as we seek and offer forgiveness, and resolve to strengthen our efforts to fulfill all that we know we are capable of. Moreover, “atonement” goes far beyond confession and repentance to God.

On this holiest of days, we not only pray and perhaps fast, seeking Divine love and healing — for that is considered the easy, virtually guaranteed part of repentance. Every passage in the Yom Kippur service promises that love and forgiveness is freely and abundantly offered to us, if our resolve is heartfelt and our desire to grow is genuine. But there is a far more difficult aspect to repentance: the ancient imperative that calls each of us to seek active healing and reconciliation directly from all those in our lives from whom we are separated by hurt, by resentments, by disappointments and by failure. We are taught that this High Holy Day season, and particularly these 10 days in between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, are intended to be a time for us to summon up all of the courage and fortitude within us, and then go and reach out to all those in our lives to whom we need to say, “I’m sorry,” “Please forgive me,” or, “I forgive you…”

With the passing of the old year, and the dawn of the new, conscious of the transience of time and the passing fragility of life, we are asked to see our lives in a broader context, to see that our days here on earth are indeed too short to live with the crushing burdens of guilt or pride, the spiritually debilitating effects of anger or resentment. Yom Kippur seeks to free us from those burdens, liberated from the regrets and mistakes of the past, empowered to begin the New Year renewed and healed…

I hope that these timeless messages of our High Holy Day tradition — renewal and return, healing and transformation, the celebration of life’s potential for fulfillment and joy — as well as the honest encounter with our failures and the healing reconciliation that can help us grow from them, will offer you meaningful milestones for your own spiritual journey.

But in the end, the most important mandates of this sacred season go even beyond this personal, inward atonement. All of our prayers, all of our resolutions, all of our own efforts at growth, healing and reconciliation in our personal lives, must ultimately inspire us to strive for an even higher transformation — the healing and renewal of our world. As Rosh Hashanah reminds us that each of us is a co-worker and partner in the unfolding process of Creation, we come to understand that our lives — and our world — will ultimately be what we make of them! What a wonderful hope, and what a powerful challenge.

And so, let us all share in that hope expressed in the traditional petition that highlights the High Holy Day liturgy:

Avinu Malkaynu chadesh aleynu Shanah Tovah!

Loving Creator of the Universe! May this New Year
bring healing and renewal… joy and health… life and peace…
to us and to all the world.

We Praise You, Eternal God, Loving Spirit of the Universe, who has sustained us, kept us in life, and permitted us to reach this sacred threshold of the future together.



About Rabbi Howard A. Berman

Rabbi Howard A. Berman is the National Executive Director of the Society for Classical Reform Judaism, and also leads Boston Jewish Spirit, a progressive Reform congregation in Boston, Mass., with a special outreach to interfaith families.