Rosh Hashanah begins Wednesday at sundown. The Jewish New Year is the start of the High Holidays for followers of the faith, but for some, that does not necessarily include synagogue. For writer Ellen Blum Barish, the holiday proved a chance to experience her faith in a whole new way.
A few years ago, on a particularly dazzling late fall day, drenched with yellow sunshine and autumn colors, my husband and I did something we’d never done before. Instead of putting on a dress and a suit, tallit and kippah, we threw on jeans, laced up our hiking boots and skipped out on Yom Kippur services.
As we sped up I-94, I felt both guilty andexhilarated. I could count on two or three fingers the number of Yom Kippur services I'd missed in my entire life. The High Holy days, actually the crescendo of a 40-day period of reflection, introspection and action that begins well before Rosh Hashonah, the Jewish New Year, and Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. The weeks mirror the 40 days that the Israelites wandered in the desert. I loved the metaphor and always used the time to reflect on how I can do better in the year to come.
But for some reason, that year, a spectacularly sunny, perfectly temperate, rare day off and a chance to commune in the woods lured.
On Rosh Hashonah, Jews are challenged to identify the areas of their life that aren’t working well; not unlike the secular new year in which we make resolutions. But most importantly, they are asked to formulate a plan to make things right. Then, 10 days after Rosh Hashonah, they return to the temple on Yom Kippur to vocalize their sins aloud, hear the shofar and the soulful music of Kol Nidre.
Instead, I was in the woods, giddy from being around growing things and God’s creatures, until the sight of a small but significantly sized creature stopped me in mid step. It was the biggest snake I’d ever seen outside a cage; it was no garden snake. Its brown, black and tan markings looked like they meant business. Somehow, in a trance of fear, I managed to snap a photo before it vanished into the grass.
A snake! Like the serpent who tempted Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. Like the glorious day had tempted me. Away from where I was supposed to be!
After the sighting, my mood quickly changed and my husband, also not a fan of snakes, agreed to head back.
On the highway home, it wasn’t guilt I felt: It was more like half emptiness. That in spite of the beauty and quiet reflection of the day – and some great photographs – I had not finished what I had started during this holiest of days. I didn’t chant my sins in community, hear the shofar blow or the soulful melody of Kol Nidre.
That was the day I finally understood how Rosh Hashonah and Yom Kippur were connected. That there was a brilliance to their pairing and that one is not complete without the other. That after the new year’s revelry, acknowledging the joyfulness of life, we need time to reflect and then act on what we discovered about ourselves. And then we need to make it official.
Years later, I rediscovered the dramatic biblical story of the brass snake. God sent “fiery serpents” to the desert to punish those Israelites who railed against God and Moses in the desert complaining about no food and the long journey. But God gave the Israelites another chance. He asked Moses to fashion a snake out of brass so that those Israelites who had been bitten, could, look upon the brass sculpture and if they showed repentance, would be healed.
Was the snake punishment for not going to services? I didn't like to think so; but I will say that I haven’t missed one since and have no plans to be anywhere else.