The Mystery of the Autumn Holy Days

This year (5769), Rosh haShanah, the Jewish new year falling on the new moon nearest the autumn equinox, begins at sundown on Monday, Sept. 29, and continues into the 30th and the 1st of October. Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, falls on the evening of Wednesday, Oct. 8 and during the day on Thursday, Oct. 9. The autumn equinox falls on the morning of Monday, Sept. 22, which is also the 22nd day of Elul, one week before Rosh haShanah.

“Seven things are concealed from humankind:
the day of death,
the day of comfort,
the depth of judgment.
No one knows in what way he or she will prosper.
No one knows what is in his or her neighbor’s heart.
No one knows what a woman is carrying in her womb.
No one knows when the oppressor will be overthrown.”
Genesis Rabbah 65:12

It’s Elul, and my summer has gone to whatever steamy paradise summers go to when they leave the world. The classes I teach begin next week. It’s hurricane season, and anxiety about the safety of citizens down South is once again on everyone’s mind. It’s election season, and my country will be voting to choose a new leader, perhaps with world-shaking consequences. Soon the High Holidays will arrive.

Last year at this time, I prayed for a child. This year, having entered my third trimester of pregnancy, I pray to be able to hold the mystery of a growing being. The power of the life-force, visibly manifest in the yellowing trees outside my window and in my own body, continues to astonish me. I am such a small part of the expansiveness of the universe. With all this on my mind, I was very moved to come across the teaching of the seven mysteries.

In the midrashic collection Genesis Rabbah, we learn of seven concealed truths: seven things we cannot know in advance. We cannot know when we will die. We cannot know, in moments of sorrow, when or how we will find comfort. We cannot judge any situation completely, not knowing all the factors. We cannot know what random occurrence or hard-earned goal will yield the harvest we have hoped for. We cannot know the deepest heart of another person. We cannot know the nature of a child in the womb: we must wait and see who he or she will become. And we cannot know when peace will finally arrive in the world. With all the spiritual and scientific wisdom we have gained as human beings, we still cannot predict the future. Our lives must be tempered by the humility of our own limited perspective.

This is what the High Holiday season, and the harvest festival season, comes to tell us. On Rosh haShanah, we contemplate all that has happened to us in the year past. We acknowledge that we have missed the mark, and that we are angry with others who have missed the mark with us. On Yom Kippur, we seek to atone for our sins, and also to remind ourselves that it is up to us to give our fleeting lives meaning, to be people that others will remember. We make a special effort to recall the dead, and we consider the knowledge that we too are finite.

In other words, we face the mysteries of human existence. We remind ourselves that the day of death is concealed from humankind and therefore we must live deeply; that complete judgment is not possible, and therefore we must both seek and grant forgiveness; that we do not fully know the hearts of others, and therefore we must learn compassion; that we do not know what will happen to us in the coming year, and so we must try to find inner peace. We also acknowledge that comfort is possible, even if we cannot see it in the moment: that prayer, good deeds, and the possibility of change can bring a new serenity to our lives. It is contemplation of the mysteries that draws us to do the work of the High Holidays.

So it is not an accident that the stories we read on Rosh haShanah are often about birth (the birth of Isaac, the birth of Samuel). Just as we do not know what kind of souls Sarah and Hannah are bringing into the world, so we do not know the full potential of our own souls or those of the people around us. We must be curious, hopeful, and compassionate: we must continue to discover the newness in the world. In a way, we can apply the statement “No one knows what a woman is carrying in her womb” to the womb of the Divine Herself. The universe has unlimited potential. The future is uncertain, and that means we can change it.

Rosh haShanah is called the birthday of the world: symbolically, it’s the day of creation. So it is the day when we take a larger perspective: we fit ourselves into the web of life, acknowledging how dependent we are on all other beings, and how much our actions impact others. Ten days later, on Yom Kippur, we re-enact the rituals our ancestors performed to “clean” their land and community of the residue of wrongful action. Yom Kippur is less an individual ritual than a communal one: it allows the newborn world to start again, shedding the past like an old skin it no longer needs. This too is a reason we return to stories/images of birth and death over and over again during the Days of Awe: these remind us of our own ability to move forward.

Yet in moving forward, we need humility. Re-commitment to our deepest truths does not guarantee us what will happen. The future remains hidden. Teshuvah, turning, only promises us that we will face what comes as wiser people, people with more resources, more love, and more understanding. Time and space, life and death, abundance and sorrow will still keep their secrets. It is we who greet those secrets who will be different.

As the poet H.D. remarks:

“The mysteries remain.
I keep the same
cycle of seedtime
and of sun and rain…”

Rabbi Jill Hammer is the Director of Tel Shemesh and the Director of Spiritual Education at the Academy for Jewish Religion. She is the author of two books: The Jewish Book of Days: A Companion for All Seasons, and Sisters at Sinai: New Tales of Biblical Women.

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