Days of Awe

What the Jewish High Holy days teach us about penitential living and repair of the world

by Ken Sehested
12 September 2018

“For godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation
and brings no regret, but worldly grief produces death.”
—2 Corinthians 7:10

        We are in a maelstrom of historical markers and liturgical import. For people of faith, it points to a significant fork in the road.

        On the one hand, we may choose an escalation of conceited policies, gluttonous consumption, and imperial threats, on and on—not world without end, for it will surely end if, by no other cause, choking to death on our own excretion.

        On the other hand, we might acknowledge our rancorous ways, reweave the tears in our social fabric, choose the public good over private gain, harness our public polity and economic productivity to the governance of sustainable development, shared bounty, and international cooperation.

        I’m not optimistic that we have learned that indignity and violence beget more of the same; that, as Admiral Michael Mullen, former Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, said, “We cannot kill our way to victory.” But let’s assess where we are.

§  §  §

“When Solomon depicts the love G‑d harbors for His nation,
he writes (Song of Songs 8:5): “Beneath the apple tree I
aroused you[r love].” Eating an apple on Rosh Hashanah
is an attempt to remind G‑d of our age-old love.
—Rabbi Baruch S. Davidson[1]

§  §  §

        We stand in the middle of the “Days of Awe,” the 10-day period linking Judaism’s two High Holy Days, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur; between “happy new year” (by Jewish reckoning, year 5779), where the haunting of old failures gives way to new possibilities, to the confirmation of the Day of Atonement’s embrace accompanied by earth’s renewal. The journey entails the resolve of acknowledging the ways we ourselves, and our body politic, have fallen short and jumped the tracks. This is the aim of penitential living.

        By what capacity might this happen? It is the prospect of mercy abetting wrath, the removal of shame, the possibility of a new beginning that enables our turning around, embracing the strenuous labor of repairing broken relations and enacting just policies.

        Reflected in Rosh Hashanah’s wake, in the delight of the world begun anew, our lives are thereby inscribed in the Book of Life, then sealed on Yom Kippur. Jews greet each other on Rosh Hashanah with the Hebrew phrase L’shana tovah, the abbreviated rendition of L’shanah tovah tikatev v’taihatem (“May you be inscribed and sealed for a good year”).

        At-one-ment. On earth, as in heaven. Able again to go out in joy, be led back in peace, the hills bursting in song, the trees in applause (Isaiah 55:12).

§  §  §

“The Messenger of God (peace and blessings be upon him) said: When God created
the creation, he inscribed upon the Throne, “My Mercy overpowers My wrath.”[2]

§  §  §

        Today is also first day of Muharram, the first month in the Islamic Hijri calendar, marking Muhammad’s forced migration from Mecca to Medina, this now being year 1440 for Muslims. The Hebrew Rosh HaShanah is etymologically related to the Arabic Ras as-Sanah, the name Muslims give for the Islamic New Year. [Note: Jewish, Islamic, and Christian calendars are calibrated differently—special observances do not always overlap across traditions.]

        As it happens[3], we are also marking the anniversary of 9/11, the date in 2001 when foreign terrorists, using rudimentary weapons, employed our own technology to strike both World Trade Center towers in New York City, the twin symbols of global financial dominance, and the Pentagon, symbol of global military might. A fourth plane, crashed in Pennsylvania, may have been headed for the White House.

        As it also happens, we are near the 15 September anniversary of the 1963 bombing of 16th Street Baptist Church, killing four young girls and traumatizing a city—Birmingham—nicknamed “Bombingham” for the sheer number of terrorist bombings it endured. The strike on 16th Street came less than three weeks after the soaring inspiration of Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech at the 28 August March on Washington, where a quarter of a million people were ecstatically immersed in the vision and promise of the Dream for which that occasion is remembered.

Right: The bomb blast of 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham blew Jesus' head out of a stained glass window.

        The 16th Street conquest, carried out by home grown terrorists that our nation has long sheltered, knocked the Dream out of its orbit, where it wobbles, still, today. And our electorate has installed as president a man who dares say aloud what most, if not all, others have silently affirmed:

        “Real power is (I hate to use the word) fear.”[4]

        Add to this the US military doctrine known as “Shock and Awe,” first used in the 2003 invasion of Iraq, which calls for using massive military force to degrade a population’s infrastructure (water, sanitation, power, etc., all of which violates international law) sufficient to provoke trembling terror, collapsing the will to carry on.[5] This kind of awe is the polar opposite of that coming from the promised new city, whose residents “will be in awe and will tremble at the abundant prosperity and peace I provide for it” (Jeremiah 33:9).

§  §  §

“I will speak against those who cheat employees of their wages,
who oppress widows and orphans, or who deprive the foreigners living
among you of justice, for these people do not fear me, says the Lord Almighty.”
—Malachi 3:5

§  §  §

        Those conversant with the language of Scripture will say, well, of course. Everywhere you turn in the Bible it’s fear of the Lord, fear of the Lord. What’s not to like in our president’s conclusion (and near-global consensus)?

        Does not this recognition alone undermine all religious appeal to confession and forgiveness, penitence and reparation, a promised atonement through which “all flesh shall see the salvation of God” (Luke 3:6)? Isn’t it all just a big mob-conspired protection racket? A pyramid of escalating overlords, beginning in the intimate relations of home and stretching to cosmic proportion?

        People of faith—and here I speak specifically to my own Christian community—have a helluva lot of work to do to even get a public hearing, not to mention bringing a coherent, convincing case. To put it precisely, what is to be said about the option of penitential living constituting the rule of faith, that distinguishes its pursuit as a trustworthy alternative to what, from all appearance, is the inevitable reign of fear and its trembling wake? Mining the depths of the Jewish tradition’s understanding of Rosh Hashanah (the prospect of beginning anew) and Yom Kippur (penitence as the key to bounty and freedom) is an urgent undertaking.

§  §  §

“Prayers of confession are usually short or long, depending on where
clergy want to focus the congregation’s attention. Usually, such
prayers are throw-aways, diversions. Everyone knows that the
congregation is going to go on as if the prayer had never been
offered. Especially for the affluent and empowered, prayers
of confession are prayed quite easily. Lunch is right
around the corner. Gated homes await them.”
—Marc Ellis, “Communal confession on Yom Kippur”[6]

§  §  §

        Our problem begins with this rather obvious fact: Our principal association with penitence and confession is self-abasement. The primary dictionary definition of penance is “voluntary self-punishment inflicted as an outward expression of repentance for having done wrong.” Do a web search for images of “penance” and much of what you will get are pictures of people literally whipping themselves.

        Karl Marx was not the first, nor the last, to conclude that religion is more or less a form of crowd control, with God as the ultimate godfather with, by extension, stately powers of all sorts serving as underbosses. That the latter are often in violent conflict with each other confirms, rather than questions, this conclusion.

        Conflict mediation specialist Byron Bland writes that two truths make healthy community difficult: that the past cannot be undone, and that the future cannot be controlled. However, two counterforces are available to address these: the practice of forgiveness, which has the power to change the logic of the past; and covenant-making, which creates islands of stability and reliability in a faithless, sometimes ruthless world.[7]

§  §  §

“Repentance is the response to grace that overcomes the past and
opens onto a new future. Repentance distinguishes Christian
life as one of struggle and conversion and pervades it, not
with remorse, but with hope. The message of Jesus is not
‘Repent’ but ‘Repent for the Kingdom of God is near.’”
—John Shea[8]

§  §  §

        Yom Kippur does not mean self-abasement. It is not a day for self-reviling and personal shame; it is not a day for groveling in the presence of the divine, as if God takes pleasure in punishing and condemning us—much less watching us punish and condemn ourselves or each other.

        God is not a sadist. And the call to confession and repentance is not a form of masochism.

        In Judaism, the focus of Yom Kippur’s call to repentance is not resignation and despair over our weakness and sin (great as they are), but renewal and hope, the chance to start again.

        The purpose of repentance is not retaliation but restoration; the focus is not on exacting revenge but on enacting repair.

        The function of repentance is summed up in the Hebrew phrase with origins in the second century CE Mishnah: “Tikkun olam,” repair of the world.

        Tikkun olam: This is the driving force behind all of Scripture.

        Tikkun olam: This is the purpose of God.

        Tikkun olam: This was the mission of Jesus.

        Tikkun olam: This is the animating power of the Holy Spirit.

        The practice of tikkun olam, played out in the Newer Testament’s terms, is the basis of Jesus’ command to love enemies.

        Tikkun olam: In the words of the Apostle Paul, “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (Romans 12:21).

        Tikkun olam: By its posture and practice all lording behavior is unveiled, stands under judgment, and is destined for perdition.

§  §  §

“‘Fear of God’ is not cowering, frightened intimidation. Those who fear God
are not wimps and are not preoccupied with excessive need to please God.
They are rather those who have arrived at a fundamental vision of reality
about life with God, who have enormous power, freedom, and energy
to live out that vision. ‘Fear of God’ is liberating and not restrictive,
because it gives confidence about the true shape of the world.
—Walter Brueggemann[9]

§  §  §

        The wreckage wrought by human behavior is real; but the future is not thereby fated. Mercy opens a portal to repentance, a repentance signified not so much as creedal precision, or ritual purity, or counting spiritual calories, as by the hard work of repairing the damage done by our disordered desires.

        Repentance is not about you or me. It is about a world created in delight, maintained by the prerogative of divine mercy, and destined for deliverance from its agony—though not by dread’s might, nor by fear’s fright, but by my spirit says the Blessed One (cf. Zechariah 4:6).

        The longing for vengeance, which we all feel when violated in ways large and small, is rooted in the demands of justice. But retaliation almost always escalates the cycle of violence, until it becomes self-perpetuating: an eye not just for an eye, but for a piece of scalp, too, and on and on until the whole world is not simply blinded but obliterated.

        Workers of mercy are not sheepish well-wishers but daredevils: Guided by beatific vision, steeled by fear-conquering faith, and informed by strategic calculation, intent on interrupting the cycle of enmity, sowing a culture of peace to yield a harvest of justice (cf. Hosea 10:12 and James 3:18).

        If—as people of faith are fond of saying—God is not done with us, then neither can we be done with each other. The failure to love enemies is a hedge on Jesus. The only toll on the road to Heaven is a broken neighbor as a companion.

§  §  §

“There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear;
for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever
fears has not reached perfection in love.”
—1 John 4:18

#  #  #

©ken sehested @


[2] Imam Bukhari and Muslim b. al-Hajjaj ahadith (official collections of oral traditions relating to the words and deeds of the Islamic Prophet Muhammad).

[3] Both Jewish and Islamic calendars are lunar and do not sync with the modern Gregorian solar calendar. Thus, dates for Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and other special Jewish holidays occur at different times of the commonplace year. For more see “A Gentile’s Guide to the Jewish Holidays,” Judaism 101.

[4] Presidential candidate Donald Trump in a 31 March 2016 interview with Bob Woodward and Robert Costa, Washington Post

[5] For more see Harlan K. Ullman and James P. Wade, Shock And Awe: Achieving Rapid Dominance (National Defense University, 1996), XXIV

[6] Mondoweiss, quoting Rabbi Brant Rosen’s confession to be read during his congregation’s Yom Kippur service

[7] Stanford Report

[8] The Challenge of Jesus, p. 4.

[9] Remember You Are Dust, p. 17