Days of awe and Meccan pilgrimage

Reflections on the confluence of Jewish and Islamic holy days

by Ken Sehested

        My lectionary imagination jumped the rails, enamored by this month’s confluence of Jewish and Islamic holy days.

        For Jews the ten “Days of Awe” began with Rosh Hashanah this past Sunday at dusk, stretching through next Wednesday’s Yom Kippur observance. For Muslims the annual pilgrimage to Mecca—“Hajj,” one of the five “pillars” of Islam, taking place this year from 21-26 September (calculated, as with Jewish holidays, by distinctive lunar calendars)—is expected to draw well over 2 million people from 188 countries.

        The second day of Dhul-Hijjah (the Month of Hajj), the annual pilgrimage to Islam’s holiest site, is called the Day of Arafat, when pilgrims travel out of Mecca to the nearby Mount Arafat to celebrate Mohammed’s “Farwell Sermon.”

        There are variations in the Hadith (authorized narratives of Muhammed’s teachings) of the Farewell Sermon, much like the Gospels in the Christian Testament have different accounts of Jesus’ life and words. Here are a few especially noteworthy statements from the Prophet’s final testament:

        •Blood-vengeance killings are forbidden, as is usury, the practice of charging interest on loans.

        • “[T]here is no superiority of an Arab over a non-Arab, nor of a non-Arab over an Arab, nor of a white over a black, nor a black over a white. . . .” (Musnad Ahmad ibn Hanbal)

        •Similar to the “new year” theme of Rosh Hashanah in Judaism, the Farewell Sermon speaks of the celebration of creation, anticipating its present-but-still-coming fulfillment. “Time has completed its cycle [and is] as it was on the day that God created the heavens and the earth.” (Ibn Hisham's Sirah an-Nabawiyah and at-Tabari’s Tarikh)

        In Judaic observance, Rosh Hashanah is commonly referred to as the Jewish New Year—Yom Teruah, literally “head of the year” and a day of “shouting/raising a noise.” It lacks the party hats, champagne and late-night carousing in Times Square, though the shofar’s trumpet-like blasts provides plenty of noise. Shared apples dipped in honey express the desire for a sweet new year. Shared blessings— “Leshanah tovah tikateiv veteichateim,” “May you be inscribed and sealed for a good year”—are reminders that life is consequential, as does the Tashlich, prayers said near a body of water recalling the verse “And You [G-d] shall cast their sins into the depths of the sea” (Micah 7:19). Rosh Hashanah is not just a calendar reload—it is cosmic, celebrating the creation of humankind. The theme of turning, repentance, is a recognition that God’s purpose has been thwarted, that human hubris is now the norm—but that this norm is not “natural,” is not the nature of God’s making. And God is not yet finished.

        The “Days of Awe” involve an inscribing of the names of the righteous in the Book of Life on Rosh Hashanah and the sealing of that Book on Yom Kippur, the “Day of Atonement,” when the soul is afflicted to atone for the sins of the past year. Yom Kippur’s atonement is specifically between individuals and God—the work of reconciliation with neighbors is to be done beforehand. This instruction is echoed in Jesus’ command (Matthew 5:23-24) to reconcile with aggrieved neighbors prior to offering a gift at the temple altar, as well as his linkage (Matthew 6:12) of the capacity to be forgiven with the willingness to forgive.

        Two things about the “Days of Awe” stand out in my mind.

        First, the names of the righteous are inscribed in God’s muster-roll, the Book of Life, on Rosh Hashanah but are not sealed until Yom Kippur. In other words, life is not fated, and there is time for turning.

        Second, every year on Yom Kippur afternoon the book of Jonah is read in synagogues around the world. Jonah’s is the tale of God’s unremitting mercy, a mercy so severe that it scandalizes the prophet himself, who is still stuck with the customary human assumption that you get what you earn, you reap only what you sow, your sum always equals your parts.

        Life is not fated. Our past does not fully determine our future. The wounds we have suffered—or inflicted—need not define and confine the future. Because we made a mistake does not mean we are a mistake. If karma is all there is, none of us have a prayer.

        The Days of Awe’s invitation to review one’s past year, indeed one’s entire life, involves a reading of history. But such readings are not primarily about the past. (As Faulkner wrote, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”) Reading history is the arguments we have with each other about the past. And whenever we argue about the past we are, in fact, making claims about the present and, thereby, about the future. Our remembrances shape our intentions. Memory—and it distortion, amnesia—shapes our politics, our vision of the commonwealth, and drives our debates over current policies and budgets.

        How, for instance, can we rightly remember our slavering past? Or, more recently, the elaborate legal justification for torture?

        Being reoriented toward the Commonwealth of God almost always entails something akin to having the rug pulled out from under our feet.  Rabbi Abraham Heschel, when told by a student that it must be gratifying to spend his life amid “the comforts of religion” replied, “God is not nice. God is not an uncle. God is an earthquake.”

        Such earthquakes may take place in a host of ways. But it always involves some sort of dislocation: from a comfort zone byway to a danger zone highway. “We should all be wearing crash helmets,” Annie Dillard wrote about fitting worship. “Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake someday and take offense, or the waking god may draw us out to where we can never return.”

            For Jonah, Sign of God, it meant three days in the belly of a maritime beast.  Pity that poor whale. Three days of nausea, caused by that gastritic Prophet who was foolish enough to flee from the sea’s own Cartographer.

©Ken Sehested @