From Estrangement to Reconciliation
The High Holidays are but milestones on the journey toward renewal of our relationship with God.
Reprinted with permission from Sh'ma: A Journal of Jewish Responsibility, September 2002.
All too often, human beings have the sad tendency of confusing our destinations with our journeys. For example, we sometimes confuse the wedding ceremony with the relationship, or the job promotion with the satisfaction of the work. To be sure, a wedding or promotion are important milestones, but they are simply one moment in time along a complex and rich journey. In the same way that individuals embark on personal life journeys marked by milestones, the Jewish community engages in a group spiritual journey, punctuated by holiday celebrations that frame our communal milestones. The Jewish holidays outline our journey as a people and give us a public forum to narrate our shared story.
Rosh Hashanah is but one station on a much longer spiritual journey. That journey begins with the days leading up to Tisha B'Av and culminates in the celebration of Simchat Torah. We move from being utterly estranged from God to being forgiven, reconciled, and reunited by the end of the holiday cycle. Along the way, we reexperience such historical events as the sin of the golden calf and the incident of the spies. We also get to reenact the reconciliation of our ancestors with God. Rosh Hashanah is but one moment in this journey toward reconnecting to God, and the richness of the holiday is more thoroughly understood when experienced in the context of the larger journey, which consists of not only the High Holidays, but all of the following stages.
The 17th of Tammuz
On this day, we committed the sin of "communal adultery," declaring that it was not God who redeemed us from Egypt, but a golden calf. When Moses comes down the mountain with the tablets containing the Torah, he realizes that we, the Jewish people, had already broken the newly formed Covenant with God. We were not yet ready for such an intimate relationship. So Moses smashes the first set of tablets and goes back up the mountain to try and obtain forgiveness for us.
The 17th of Tammuz is also the day, several thousand years later, when the walls of Jerusalem are breached and the massacre within the city begins. Because this day marks the beginning of such a period of distance from God, many Jews take on certain practices associated with mourning beginning with the 17th of Tammuz and continuing through the three weeks leading to Tisha B'Av.
The Nine Days
Beginning with the month of Av, the days leading up to Tisha B'Av mark an increase in mourning customs (no shaving or eating meat) as we anticipate the upcoming destruction of the Temple, the result of our distancing ourselves from God and mitzvot.