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Towards Rosh Hashanah & Yom Kippur

Leshanah Tovah! A good and happy New Year!

May this be a year of blessings and peace for us, our families, our communities, Israel and all the world.

These daily reflections are intended to help us prepare inwardly for the High Holydays.
This year the focus is on key prayers. The services are long and complex; I hope these thoughts will help to offer a way in. They are accompanied by page references to the different books, and a sound track of a member of our community singing the prayer.

Click the links for the sound files.
Thank you to Natalie Grazin and Chazzan Jeremy Burko for recording these sound files.

1. Uvechen Ten
* -
And now, Lord our God, set the fear of you over all your works and the awe over all you have created 

It must seem strange to claim to love a prayer which opens with the word ‘fear’. But ‘fear’ in this context means ‘awe’ and awe means wonder. The words remind me of the places which most touch my heart. They make me think of that fawn which came to feed on alfalfa once when I was standing in for the warden at the nature reserve on the Carmel Mountains below Haifa, overlooking the sea. So what the prayer really means is: open our eyes, and hearts, to see and feel the beauty, tenderness and wonder of life. The glory and preciousness of life on the one hand, the frailty of life, both physical and moral, on the other, - these are the two chambers of the heart of the High Holydays. 

But what about ‘fear’? Is it sleight of hand to use translation to air-brush the word from the text? To Maimonides, fear in the religious context meant a deep reverence and humility. Hasidic writing refers to ‘fear within love’, the feeling of loving something so much that we are afraid lest we should do anything which might hurt it in any way. Seen in these terms, ‘fear’ means that all life should be so precious to us that we intuitively refrain from doing or saying anything which could do it damage. And if we do commit wrong, if in religious terms we sin, and behave in callous and destructive ways, when we come back to our true self we feel an instinctive remorse which leads us at once to ask what we can do to make reparation.

Let all creation be bound together in one bond to do your will with a perfect heart.

Life separates us and leads us into conflict in almost innumerable ways. Sometimes people with cruel hearts deliberately stir up hatred. Sometimes our own hurts lead us into misunderstandings.  Sometimes I think that much conflict is driven by the fact that we belong to different narratives and tell different stories about the world. We are persuaded that the others, belonging to a different nationality, faith, or ethnicity are hateful and avaricious and plan to kill us. We look at the world and indeed it seems so. It can be hard to know whether it is the ‘facts’ which create the stories, or whether it is the way we talk about each other which then produces the ‘facts’. Either way, the reality is that humanity is full of conflict and we often have reason to be afraid, especially when, as Jews, we are a small minority in the world. 

But this prayer has the courage to look deeper. If awe and wonder would only flood through all our hearts and leave humility in their wake, then our angers and suspicions would fall away and there would be no more grounds for our fears, because we would realise what we all have so deeply in common. When they finally find one another, people who’ve been on opposing sides often say, though not necessarily in such explicit terms: ‘If only I’d known that you too are human. Now I can see that you too are a person like me’. I remember hearing about an encounter soon after Prime Minister Begin invited President Sadat to visit Israel. A meeting was arranged for the war wounded of both sides; the awkward silence was broken by a soldier in a wheelchair crossing the divide in the middle of the room and saying, ‘Brother, how did you lose your legs?’

This prayer expresses all my hopes for the whole world, for the way I want my own heart to grow, and every heart.  

*Page numbers:
Routledge - p. 15
Birnbaum (single volume) - p. 31-2
Art Scroll - p. 64

2. Zochrenu le’chayim* – Remember us for life, King who delights in life, and write us in the book of life, for your sake living God.

It’s a truism that Judaism teaches us to love life. It’s the core of Jewish culture that we laugh with life, dance with life, eat (too much) to nourish life, drink lechayyim to life, and are instructed to honour and be compassionate towards all life. ‘God’s mercies are upon all God’s works’ says the Psalmist, and we, in God’s image, should be merciful also.

God, too, loves life. To many people it is the basic processes of life which bring us closer than anything else to a sense of the spirit: the rich excitement in the smell of spring grass; the long thin legs of a newborn foal; the pool beneath a waterfall where the mind is washed clean of thought; mist and old leaves on a sharp autumn morning. ‘I’m going to my favourite tree to pray’, a friend used to tell me, until someone went and chopped it down. God is in all this becoming, in its decay and rebirth too; and here for many is the only reliable knowledge of everlasting life, this constant becoming. 

But to mystics like Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook life on this earth is only part of a much greater flow of spirit which lifts our souls towards the good. This longing to return home to closeness with God and goodness, this spirit of teshuvah, ‘emerges from the depth of being’; it ‘is inspired by the yearning of all existence to be better, purer, more vigorous and on a higher plane’ (The Lights Of Penitence, ch. 6). God’s spirit calls to us and carries us to become the best human being we can. I experience this in moments of inspiration like those many people told me about after going to the Olympics and Paralympics: ‘It was amazing how he swam. He had no legs. It was so humbling. It lifted my imagination. It made me think of what the spirit in all of us could do, if only we tried.’

Out of this love for and faith in life we ask God to ‘write us in the book of life’. The metaphor of the book, rooted in the Bible, permeates the High Holydays. It gives us the customary greeting, ‘May you be written for a good year’. (According to some views, one should be careful when one says this. The truly righteous, maintains the Talmud, are written in the good book immediately; therefore to greet anyone belatedly might imply that we thought them less than perfect! Simply saying ‘Leshanah tovah, a good year!’ is always alright.) But what are we actually asking for?

At one level the answer is obvious: may we live and not die. Many fears lie in the shadow cast by that image of the book: our ignorance of the future, our knowledge, always theoretical, always provisional, until it happens to us, that we ‘are born to die’.

But the deeper meaning is that we are not in fact ‘born to die’, though we all must and shall return to the earth like everyone else. The true meaning is that we are born to live. The book in which we want to be written is not somewhere up in heaven. That is no more than a metaphor and must not be taken literally. The real book is here on earth and the text consists of our deeds, what we write in each other’s hearts, what we write on the plate of the hungry, what we write with our happy footsteps on the beach running after the waves or the dog, and what we write with each other’s tears. It doesn’t matter if the ink is invisible. Life knows, God knows, and that’s all that matters.

*Page numbers:
Routledge – p.15
Birnbaum (single volume) – p.31
Art Scroll – p.62

3. BeRosh Hashanah yikatevun* – On Rosh Hashanah it is written and on Yom Kippur it is sealed, how shall live and who shall die…

‘Don’t say “when I have time I’ll study”’, said Rebbe Schlomo of Radomsk, quoting the ancient teaching of Hillel, but rather ‘Cherish this day and this hour that we are in the world, for it is in our power to repair everything…’

‘Who shall live and who shall die; who by famine and who by thirst’: this famous, or notorious, prayer is a blunt meditation on the common ways to die in mediaeval times. It is attributed to Rabbi Amnon of Mainz who spoke the words as he bled to death, tortured for his faith. He then reappeared in a dream and taught them, so that they should be set down for all generations. In the centuries since, they have been placed in the core of the High Holyday prayers. In the new synagogue in Mainz, one of the great Rhineland centres of Jewish learning before and after its devastation in the First Crusade, the words are carved on the walls, next to verses from the Song of Songs which affirm love as life’s most central reality.

Love and death: how are they to be reconciled? To translate the prayer into the modern idiom would only make the question more ‘in the face’. Can I know there won’t be war, that I won’t be in an accident, that the plenty in the shops will endure for ever, that it won’t be me recalled by the doctor because the test showed up something not quite right? For myself, I generally live by putting such thoughts far from my mind. But a Buddhist friend recently said, ‘We consider a day on which we don’t reflect on death as a day wasted’.

What’s the point of that? One answer lies in the single word, sung again and again and with such vigour just before the High Holyday services end: Hayom, ‘This day’, ‘Strengthen us today, bless us today’. Those blessings are not just up there in heaven; they are also here, in our hands. ‘Be a blessing’, says God to Abraham. The rabbis interpret this to mean that ‘up to now blessings were in my hands; now they’re in yours’.

That’s where the love comes in. What’s the best thing we’ve got to do or give, this day, and each day of our lives? (We shouldn’t be driven into hedonistic panic, but into a steady awareness of the gift of time.) We can try to live more from our heart. We can cease to omit, from habit and taking them for granted, to tell those we care for and love how much we treasure and appreciate them. We can use our existence to do good in the world.

Hence the much misunderstood close of the meditation: ‘Prayer, repentance and charity remove the evil of the decree’. This doesn’t mean that those virtuous paths are a way of bargaining with God, ‘If I do this, don’t you do that’. The ‘evil of the decree’ is rather that we can allow the fear of death to ruin our life. Since there’s no escaping death, resolution lies solely in living with purpose. The suggestions as to how we should do so are not as purely pious as they may initially sound. Prayer means developing our inner life, listening with the soul. Repentance means seeking to be true to heart and conscience, faithful to the goodness within our own heart bestowed on us by love. Charity, or better, righteousness, means doing what is just, helpful and kind. How else would we want to be?  I’ve never ever met anyone who has found happiness other than through living out the response to one or more of these values.

*Page Numbers:
Routledge – p. 147
Birnbaum – p. 361
Artscroll – p. 482

4. Zacharti lach chesed ne’urayich*– I remember unto you the loving kindness of your youth, the love of your bridal days, when you followed me through the desert, through an unsown land

These are the words the prophet Jeremaiah was instructed by God to tell the people of Jerusalem as they faced the crisis of the Babylonian invasion at the beginning of the sixth century BCE. Alongside rebuke, he was to remind them of their long, loving bond with God.

The words also speak from much closer in history. They were sung at the rededication of the Westend-Synagoge in Frankfurt in 1950. My grandfather, who returned to the city where he had served as rabbi for thirty years to give the address, described wandering amidst the ruins of its unrecognisable streets and squares where the grey clouds loured through the broken windows. ‘What a judgement from heaven has come upon this town’, he said. But I’m sure it was he who asked for these verses, with their beautiful melody by Levandowski, to be included in the service, because I know that he loved them for their tenderness and promise. 

What are they doing in the liturgy of Rosh Hashanah? They are among ten verses on the central theme of remembering, the key subject which gives the festival its second Hebrew name, Yom Hazikaron, the Day of Memory.

There are many other dates in the Hebrew and secular calendars devoted to memories: November 11, when we recall the dead of both World Wars, the modern Yom Hazikaron preceding Israel’s Independence Day, when we are mindful of all who lost their lives to create and protect our country. But on Rosh Hashanah the meaning is different; we’re invited to ponder not particular memories but the significance of memory itself.  What wisdom should we retain from the whole history of humanity? What, if anything, does it all mean?

Is the ultimate reality behind experience simply bare and bitter competition? Is the truth revealed by history that the fittest survive and that it is only by adaptation, cunning, skill and power that we can secure our niche on this earth as a species, as a nation, and as individuals among billions of others? Are we protected from true awareness of this fact only because there is sufficient wealth in our country to afford us the disguise of our decorous way of life?

Or is the message of history the constant, visceral surge of violence and the long, bleak waste of ruin it leaves behind, like those bombed-out houses my grandfather spoke of? Are the sword, axe, gun and landmine the only true and genuine hallmarks of humanity?

No, we say. There exists something deeper and more constant. There is a covenant, a pact, between God and all life, and between God and the Jewish People, and between all living beings. The content of that covenant is love. That is the deepest reality.

Considering the remorseless flow of birth and death one might be inclined to observe, ‘Love? How absurd!’ Yet think of the tenderness with which a mother gazes at her baby, of parent and child holding hands, of the way a person looks at the one with whom he is utterly in love, of the practical tenderness of those who’ve grown old together. Could it actually be true that love is indeed our deepest reality?

I’ve never forgotten a short conversation with a man in hospital. Illness had forced him out of his habitual routine and given him time to reflect. I asked him what he felt: ‘Surprised by joy and full of gratitude’, he said.  On Rosh Hashanah we too leave our routine to reflect on what it’s all for. What do we feel? ‘Remember the love’, says God.

*Page numbers:
Routledge – p. 159
Birnbaum (single volume) – p. 387
Art Scroll – p.512

5. Kol Nidrei All vows… from this Yom Kippur until next Yom Kippur, may it come upon us for good…

There are two evenings in the year which unite the Jewish People more than all others, the Seder on the 15th of Nisan in the spring, and Kol Nidrei at the beginning of Yom Kippur on the 10th of Tishrei in the autumn. These nights summon us; religious or secular, regular or rare darkeners of synagogue doors, we recognise their power. All Israel stands together, generation alongside generation.

Seder is the night of the story; we tell the history of our people and within it discover our own stories, moving off the pages about Egypt into how our family left Lithuania, fled Germany, or chose exile from Apartheid South Africa to begin anew in an unknown land. The family, the table, the stories, the debate about freedom, - the power of the Seder is obvious.

But what about Kol Nidrei? Many are the speculations: what is the secret of the popularity of this strange passage about the annulment of promises we haven’t even yet made?

The Talmud affirms that we may ask for rash vows to be cancelled on the grounds that we wouldn’t have made them had we understood the consequences. We know better now and regret what we hastily said. But this refers only to vows made in the past, and there is an established name and date for the ceremony,- hattarat nedarim, the release from vows, performed before Rosh Hashanah.

Equally, it has been argued that Kol Nidrei came to prominence in times of persecution from the seventh century onwards, when Jews who knew they would have to pretend to profess other religions or be killed, recited the formula, presumably in private, on the holiest day of the year to affirm the integrity of their commitment to Judaism. The passage therefore constitutes the deepest possible affirmation of our solidarity as Jews despite all the trials to which we have been subject throughout history.

Others argue that it’s the music which has saved the words; without the melody the text would long have forfeited its place in the prayer book. No one can doubt the impact of that music; it carries us to an inner place far deeper than the plain meaning of the words would seem to warrant. Few people turn in boredom to study the syntax at this point in the service.

To me the power of the Kol Nidrei, music, words and occasion all together, lies in its great and beautiful testament to hope and the unfathomable resources of the spirit. Yes, we acknowledge, we had dreams and we failed to realise them, ideals and we couldn’t live up to them. But we will continue to have dreams, persist in striving for our ideals, put all our heart into being the people we believe we are capable of becoming. In these wonderful moments there is no cynicism in our souls; we will give life everything. And though, God, we know in advance that we shall not succeed in fulfilling our hopes, at least not completely and entirely, do not bind us to our words and hold them against us, but inspire and sustain our spirits, for then we will surely be able to change both ourselves and the world.

6. Click here for today’s sound file

‘O God, O God, God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, great in loving kindness and truth, forgiving, sin and transgression…

These much repeated words with their familiar melody form the chorus of Yom Kippur. They are first spoken by God to Moses to proclaim God’s forgiveness for the sin of the golden calf. The Talmud imagines God putting on a Tallit made of light and teaching the community how to pray: ‘Whenever Israel sins, let them perform this service before me and I will forgive them.’ (Talmud, Rosh Hashanah 17b) Following the traditional calculation, according to which Moses re-ascends Mount Sinai on the 1st  of the month of Elul and remains there for forty days and forty nights, the date is the 10th of Tishrei, - Yom Kippur.

But is God merciful and gracious? Many atheists reject religion not only because they hold the notion of a God of any kind to be incredible and untenable, but also because, considering the role ascribed to God in so many of the bloodiest wars in history, they find it immoral. I have much sympathy for Yehudah Amichai’s wry reflection in his poem based on the title of the well-known memorial prayer, which opens

God full of mercy:
Were it not for that God full of mercy
There would be mercy here on earth, not just in him.

How then can we be so brazen as to claim that God is loving and forgiving? It may be that the future of our planet turns on how we respond to this question. The issue isn’t God, but how God is understood and (ab)used. This is where the teaching of Yom Kippur is so important.

God, we are told repeatedly, is the God of life, who loves life and delights in life. I do not think it is too free an interpretation to find our God in the very power of life itself, in the process which causes the leaf to unfurl from the bud in spring and turn amber and fall in autumn, or in the slow growth of the heart from conception to the compassion we hope to have garnered by the time, if we are fortunate, that we reach old age.

God is not love alone. Be careful, cautions the Talmud, of saying in your prayers ‘God’s mercies descend to the bird’s nest’, for what will you say when cruel things come to pass? God brings death as well as life; God is in the wind which lays the forest bare.

But on Yom Kippur we focus mainly on the love. Who gave us the capacity to feel love in the heart, and to give it to others through generosity, tenderness and awareness? From where does the beauty come which causes joy to sing in the soul, sustaining kindness and goodness? What nurtures the capacity to stop brooding over anger and to refrain from nursing every hurt until it turns into bitterness inside us, because life is too short, too poignant, too wonderful and too important? From life, one might say; and to the spiritually inclined person that very life is the spirit of God.

Whose responsibility is it, then, to turn that love into deeds, into realities on earth, both where there is pain, hunger, cruelty and need, and where there is leisure and plenty? Whose, if not our own, you and me, privileged to be alive at this moment? 

7. Click here for the sound file

Shema Kolenu

Hear our voice, Lord our God, have mercy and pity upon us…
Draw us back to you, God and we shall return; renew our days, as of old.
Do not cast us off from before you and do not take your holy spirit from us.
Do not cast us off in our old age; do not abandon us when our strength is at an end.

We do not know who put these four stirring verses from the Bible and the Siddur together, or who composed the music which makes this simple, beautiful prayer one of the most tender and heartfelt of the day. Thankfully, it is repeated in every service of Yom Kippur, except Ne’ilah, which has many uniquely moving passages of its own. My own associations with this prayer are forever touched by the memory of my father, close to the end of his life and when he could only just walk, being invited to open the Ark in the Selichot service and listening to the words in tears.

Those words go to the heart of the privilege and poignancy of human life. From the negative one learns the positive; we wouldn’t be asking God not to take the sacred spirit from us were that spirit not part of us in the first place. In our more secular hours we might call it the wonder of being alive, in our more spiritual moments the privileged gift from God, - to have a heart to feel, a conscience to know, a mind to think, senses to experience joy and awe. That life is a sacred privilege stands at the spiritual, emotional and moral centre of Judaism.

Yet at the same time we recognise that we are frail. There are two aspects to this frailty. The first is material; on Yom Kippur of all days, a day without eating and drinking, a day outside of normal time, we realise that our physical existence is limited, that life flows by ever faster, and that we are vulnerable to illness and chance in ways which we cannot ultimately control. We’ve all witnessed the reality that it’s hard to be ill, or grow old. That’s why caring for one another is the greatest thing we can do with our lives. But there are also gifts we need in times of struggle which no human being can bestow, - courage, love, generosity, wisdom and good grace in the centre of our heart. For these we turn to God and ask God to be with us and within us.

All the more, too, do we realise that we must not take either life’s blessings for granted, one of the greatest of which is the opportunity to cherish, appreciate and love one another.

Yom Kippur also reminds us that we are morally frail. Only at one’s peril does one think ‘There are no circumstances in which I could ever do that!’ Dishonesty, including with our own selves, greed, anger, meanness of spirit, bigotry, - so long as we engage in such behaviours they deprive us of our clarity of vision and purity of soul. They distort our vision and alienate God’s presence from us, until remorse and reparation restore us. That, too, is why we pray ‘God, don’t take your holy spirit from us’, but help us to become the people we are truly capable of being. Make those powers of truth, love and goodness which lie within us grow and thrive in our heart.

This prayer and its music have, in and of themselves, the power to open and purify the heart.