At the Heart of the Days of Awe Is Not Sin, Guilt, or Punishment but the Human Relationship with the Divine

October 8, 2019 | Rachel Gruzman
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While the phrase “High Holy Days” refers in English to Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, the equivalent Hebrew terms means “Days of Awe” or “Dread,” evoking the belief that God sits in judgment at this time of year, weighing individuals’ (and nations’) good deeds and sins, and determining their fates for the coming year. Rachel Gruzman notes that, in ḥaredi circles, there is a tendency to focus on the “severity and even terror” of this literally awe-filled period. But, she argues, such an emphasis can obscure its true significance, which is not about the Creator extracting punishment for misdeeds, or forgoing punishment, but about repairing the relationship between Israel and God—one most often likened, from the Bible onward, to that between a son and a father or between a wife and a husband:

Beyond instructions, commandments, and prohibitions, the . . . Torah presents a deeply human history: a tale of a profound and ongoing relationship between God and the people of Israel. [Humanity does not exist merely] for the technical purpose of discharging our religious obligations; for such a purpose, God might have created robots. We are here to maintain a true relationship with God, a relationship that makes emotional as well as practical demands, just like relationships among humans.

We do not work at a mitzvah factory, with God serving as the boss whose task is to measure output and allocate salaries. We are God’s children. If the world is a factory, then the boss is our father. . . . This factory has no goals of profit and loss in the conventional economic sense. Even if production is low, the father is interested in its existence because the workers are His children.

[S]urprisingly enough, the prayers of the High Holy Days largely ignore [sin and] judgment, [focusing instead on] sacrifices and the order of Temple service, God’s holiness and greatness, the future Kingdom of God, forgiveness, the chosenness of the Jewish people, and hope in [God’s mercy]. The central subject of all these prayers is that each person stands before God—as someone. . . . We are happy that He is a forgiving God, for this allows us to have a relationship with Him; we seek atonement in order to strengthen this connection.

In this vein, Gruzman sees a parallel to the prohibition against idolatry, which requires that humans see God as Someone rather than as a literal object or a mere instrument for receiving blessings. Similarly, humans are obligated to understand themselves as people, rather than instruments.

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