What are the High Holy Days About?
10/2/2019—I have been reading the essay, Language, in Heidegger’s book, Poetry, Language, Thought. In this essay, Heidegger asks what language calls? Language calls what is far. It calls us to the absence of what is far. Language does not round up what it calls.
The same is true of God. The High Holy Days are not about renewing a program of social justice. They are about the holy. They are about God and humans.
One does not pray to bring oneself closer to God. Closeness to God is not a human achievement.
Nor does one pray to bring closer. God is far away.
Rather, one prays to bring the absence of God closer. That is the penitent posture. One prays into that absence for forgiveness.
Out of that renewed spirit, it is possible to imagine a program of social justice. But it would only be one that arose out of human solidarity.
So, the point of the High Holy Days is longing for God. Unlike other holidays that some other theme—law for Shavuot, freedom for Passover, nature for Sukkot—the only theme of the High Holy Days is God and my inability, through sin or simple distance, to be in God’s presence.
Shabbat also has this theme, which is why Psalm 27:4 is said: “One thing I ask from the LORD, this only do I seek: that I may dwell in the house of the LORD all the days of my life, to gaze on the beauty of the LORD and to seek him in his temple.”
But, it may be asked, what has all this to do with the atheist, who does not believe in God? Someone like me.
But who longs for God more than the atheist, for whom the distance from God is truly infinite? The believer has God in his pocket. Not so the atheist. It is impossible to think of a character like Chris Hitchens as anything but a jilted lover. Hitchens had God and then he lost God.
That would be true of most atheists of a certain age. Most of us grew up believers and we know what we have lost. There is a different kind of atheism growing now—the young, who know nothing of the God experience.
So I said to my teacher, I miss Kol Nidre. Then for a moment I felt close to the divine. No, he said to me. Now you have Kol Nidre. If you had continued going to that service, you would eventually have lost it through repetition. It remains for you now holy for all time.