The 10 days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are a time of introspection, when we take stock of our misdeeds during the past year and promise God to atone for them by changing who we are, committing ourselves to prayer, and performing good deeds, all in the hope that She will inscribe us for a sweet year in the Book of Life.
For me, these endless days of Covid-19 feel like a perfect opportunity for introspection, and focusing on how to be a better person.
Since childhood, I have loved the High Holy Days. Secular though we were, my mother treated these days with reverence. She grew contemplative. She cooked. She polished the silver. She lit candles. She prayed. Our stormy house was calm. For that reason alone, I never wanted these days to end.
But I never really understood them. All I knew, as Mom explained, was that the more sugar-dipped challah we ate on Rosh Hashanah, the sweeter the next year would be; and, that Yom Kippur was the day when we apologized to God for our sins.
That’s where Mom got it wrong: It isn’t God to whom we must apologize but the people we have wronged. And we can’t email or text regrets. We must, wherever possible, look into each other’s eyes and say we are sorry. This can be tough. It’s one thing to know that I have done wrong. It’s something else to own and admit it, face-to-face. Nothing makes me feel more vulnerable.
And yet, it’s my vulnerability that sensitizes me to others. This is something else that I cherish about the High Holy Days: the reminder to look beyond my needs to those of others. Today, this may include making food or monetary donations, checking in with loved ones, and staying six feet apart from the folks I pass on the hiking trails.
Improving character takes soul searching, something that the push of ordinary life does not allow. But these are extraordinary days. I am approaching them as a second shot at self-improvement, assessing the parts of my character that need changing, and the wrongs for which I have not apologized; turning my prayers for help into prayers of gratitude; and now, during this week of Pesach with the command to welcome the stranger, praying for not only the continued good health of those I love but also for those I do not know.
Andrea Kott is the author of the forthcoming memoir, “Salt on a Robin’s Tail: An Unlikely Jewish Journey Through Childhood, Forgiveness and Hope,” due in May from Blydyn Square Books.