From Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur

There is a change of mood from the beginning to the end of the ten days of repentance.

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Yet, while these parts of the liturgy clearly indicate the insignificance of humankind in the face of divine presence, other parts raise a different point. The Ne'ilah prayer quoted above goes on to state, "You have set man aside from the very beginning, permitting him to stand before You." On the one hand, then, human life seems to have very little value in the vast scheme of things, but on the other hand, we sense a special relationship between us and our Creator. Thus, for all our limitations, we are nonetheless creatures of worth.

On this matter, the sages gave us excellent advice. They said that each person should carry two notes in his or her pockets. On one would be the words, "For my sake the world was created." On the other, "I am but dust and ashes." When we despair of our value we look at the first. When we are too haughty, we look at the second.

This dichotomy is not between body and spirit, but between good and evil. Although we separate ourselves on Yom Kippur from bodily needs as much as possible, we do so only in order to emphasize the importance of the spiritual side of life, which we usually ignore, afflicting ourselves in order to gain a higher degree of holiness. The object is not to make this asceticism a part of everyday life, but to be able to return to normal life with greater self‑knowledge and awareness. The central dichotomy established by the Yom Kippur fast and prayers is therefore not between body and spirit, but between worth and lack of worth, between impulses toward evil and impulses toward good.

The Yamim Noraim are about choice. We are not toys of fate. We are not destined for sin and evil. We have the possibility of choosing the path to life. No matter what we have been, we can change and become better. If we seem to emphasize the dark side of life and of human beings, it is only in order to come to terms with our limitations, to recognize our faults, and to prepare to better ourselves.

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Rabbi Dr. Reuven Hammer

Rabbi Dr. Reuven Hammer is a former President of the International Rabbinical Assembly, he is one of the founders of the Masorti Movement in Israel and is currently Head of the Masorti Beth Din in Israel.