The High Holiday State of Mind
by Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnick
For most Jews, the words “High Holidays”
immediately conjure up
Rosh Hashanah and Yom
Kippur, and that is perfectly
understandable. After all,
they are the three days in the Jewish year when
even the most alienated Jews find their way
into synagogue, and the holidays most Jews
are likely to be familiar with. The existential
import of their sacred moments resonates
with Jews for a whole host of reasons, no matter
how distant they may feel themselves from
any prayerful posture.
But the truth, of course, is more complicated.
The high holidays are better understood
as a season than a specific set of days.
They are a state of mind and being, framed
by sacred days but not limited by them.
Those who regularly attend a morning
minyan have no doubt at all about when the
high holiday season begins. It happens on
the morning of Rosh Chodesh Elul, the first
day of the Hebrew month of Elul, when the
service is punctuated at its conclusion by
the blast of the shofar. The practice is
repeated every day of Elul and ceases only
on the day before Rosh Hashanah in order
to differentiate between the optional sounding
of the shofar and that mandated by
the Torah (on the days of the holiday itself).
No one can argue that the essential tone
of the high holiday season is a solemn one.
It is a time of cheshbon hanefesh, literally,
a reckoning of the soul. We are tasked with
looking inward as we prepare to stand in
judgment before God, who knows our inner
selves. God knows us, as it were, at a glance.
It is we who often don’t know – or pretend
not to know – ourselves. That is the
difficult work of the month of Elul. As Maimonides
pointed out, one cannot do
penance for a sin that one is unaware of having
committed. You can’t fix what you don’t
know is broken. Elul is the time for figuring
that out, and the Aseret Y’mei T’shuvah
(Ten Days of Repentence), from Rosh
Hashanah through Yom Kippur, are our
time to act on that newfound awareness
fast broken than we are obliged to turn
our attention to Sukkot, the fall pilgrimage
festival that follows quickly on its heels.
In fact, tradition suggests that we begin
the construction of the Sukkah on the
evening that Yom Kippur concludes. No
rest for the weary!
The juxtaposition of the solemn high holidays
with the joyous festival of Sukkot is
more than a little jarring. Conventional wisdom
has it that this seemingly awkward positioning
is best understood as a prescriptive
behavioral reaction to the high holidays’
relentless emphasis on mortality. After more
than a month of being reminded of how
fragile life is, the most spiritually constructive
response is to celebrate: V’samachta
b’chagecha… v’hayita ach sameach (And you
shall rejoice in your holidays… and you shall
be exceedingly joyous) Deuteronomy 16:14-
15. Both the historical dimension of God’s
kindness to us in the desert after the Exodus
(by sheltering us in sukkot) and the agricultural
dimension of the fall harvest provide
the impetus for the celebration. Let the sobriety
of the Yamim Nora’im (Days of Awe) end
and the various sensory delights of Sukkot
This all makes perfect sense. The flow
is logical and it positions us to enter the new
year in a spiritual posture of joy and gratitude.
But nothing is ever that simple.
Think for a moment of the flow of Sukkot.
The sixth day of the holiday – the fourth
and last day of chol hamoed in the Diaspora
– is Hoshanah Rabbah, when the
metaphorical Books of Life and Other are
finally sealed. The preliminary sealing, as
it were, is on Yom Kippur, but the final sealing
is on Hoshanah Rabbah. It is the
moment of ultimate justice, reflected in the
reversion to high holiday melodies in the
lengthy synagogue service, and the fact that
the hazzan wears a white kittel, as on Rosh
Hashanah and Yom Kippur. One might ask,
what happened to v’samachta b’chagecha?
What about embracing celebration in the
aftermath of all that talk of mortality?
The question only becomes more acute
the next day, on Shemini Atzeret. Once
again, the joy of Sukkot is mitigated by
the recitation of the Yizkor memorial service
and the dramatic prayer for rain in its
proper time and amount in the land of Israel.
The ark is opened, and again the hazzan
wears a kittel and uses a melody reminiscent
of the high holidays.
And just to complicate the mood shift
even further, later that evening we revert
back to joyous mode with the advent of Simchat
Torah, singing and dancing in celebration
of completing the cycle of annual
What’s happening here?
The answer, I believe, is to be found in
the fact that the festival of Sukkot is not after
the high holiday season. It is very much part
and parcel of it. And all of it together is
one great, grand metaphor about life and
its ebb and flow. Fragility yields to intuitions
of mortality, which yield to celebration,
which yields to intuitions of mortality, which
yield yet again to celebration… this is the
rhythm by which we live our lives. What
makes it so complicated is the irregular,
almost spasmodic rhythm, often jerking
us from one extreme to the other, without
warning, rhyme or reason.
I cannot count how many times I have
watched people wait for the chance to spend
quality time with a beloved spouse only
to see that partner or they themselves become
seriously ill. Parents dare to dream about
the life they want their child to live, only
to see events unfold and take all of them
in unanticipated and sometimes unwelcome
directions. And then there are those
moments when it appears that nothing is
going as we want. All appears lost, until
for reasons that we can neither discern nor
understand, things turn out better than
we anticipated. And we just don’t know why
or how it happened.
The reality is that there is precious little
of life about which we can be sure. And
what we all learn eventually – some more
painfully than others – is that the things that
matter the most to us are the things we have
the least control over. We have to nurture
them. Like the transition from Yom Kippur
to Sukkot, to Hoshanah Rabbah and Shemini
Atzeret, and then to Simchat Torah,
we lurch from the good to the bad, from the
easy to the difficult, most often without
warning, holding on for dear life.
For the past three decades, I have tried
hard to help the members of my community
understand that intuiting the fragility
of life and the imperative of celebration is
not a seasonal issue in Judaism but rather
a daily one. The swirling currents of the high
holiday season are, indeed, the currents of
our lives, and learning to navigate them is
an essential life skill. It is the difference
between living a meaningful life in a difficult
world, and merely surviving.
To my mind, one of Judaism’s most
important and timeless teachings was
offered by Rabbi Meir in the Babylonian
Talmud (Menachot 43b): “One is obligated
to recite one hundred blessings each day.”
We might be tempted to read this as a reflection
of a narcissistic God who requires incessant
flattery, but I read it much more simply.
It is not God who requires the blessings
to assuage a needy ego, but rather we
humans who require the recitation of blessings
to remind us of how fragile our blessings
really are, and how quickly they can
This is the fundamental message of the
high holiday season, and it reflects, if in
higher definition, the fundamental message
of Judaism itself. You are blessed. Be grateful.
Celebrate life! In that spirit, may I
wish you all a k’tivah vachatimah tovah. May
we all enjoy a year rich in blessing, with
peace, prosperity and good health!
Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is the spiritual leader of the Forest Hills Jewish Center and the president of the Rabbinical Assembly.