The High Holy Days are a time for renewal and repentance, and reading the right inspirational material can help set the mood for this period. For some, that means spending time during services reading content that augments that of prayer books — with the approval of some religious leaders — or it can be reading uplifting, thought-provoking writing in the days leading up to Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur.
“Preparing your Heart for the High Holy Days” (The Jewish Publication Society, 1996), by Rabbis Kerry Olitzky and Rachel T. Sabath, is one such a book. Olitzky, described by Newsweek as one of the 50 leading rabbis in the United States, is the author of some 75 books, and served for many years as executive director of the Jewish Outreach Institute, now Big Tent Judaism.
“The holidays are about introspection and preparing for the year ahead,” Olitzky, a resident of North Brunswick, told NJJN. Referring to Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur, he said, “Too often we look at them as independent holidays when really they are the beginning and end to a period of time for us to look inward and outward.”
“Preparing your Heart” focuses not on the High Holy Days themselves, but rather on the Hebrew month of Elul that precedes them. As Olitzky pointed out, Jewish tradition encourages 40 days of introspection and moral inventory leading up to the holidays, and the book uses a number of sources from scripture and rabbinic writings, both ancient and modern, that convey that.
“We need to fix what has become broken over the last 12 months or in years past,” Olitzky said. “I like to say if you can’t fix what is broken, go fix something else.”
Olitzky said the book uses “two lenses.” One comes from Psalm 27, “Of David: The Lord is my light,” which is read during morning and evening services during Elul and has been interpreted in modern midrash as encouraging renewal of our faith. The other uses an assortment of classical yeshiva texts meant to accomplish the same goal. Each page of text has a facing page that is blank except for a short message — be it from scripture, midrash, or any variety of Jewish sources —
intended to elicit a reaction that the reader can write down in the remaining space.
Rabbi Eric Eisenkramer of Temple B’nai Shalom, the Reform congregation in East Brunswick, said the format of Olitzky’s book is “very smart.”
“Every day there is a quote from tradition, and the journaling on the side allows you to write out how that theme applies to your own life,” he said. “The emphasis on these holidays is teshuvah, or repairing any misdeeds or sins you may have committed. A wonderful teaching of the rabbis is that if the sin is between human beings and God, Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, forgives and repairs. But with the sins between human beings, it’s up to the people to make peace with one another. In other words, in addition to prayer on the holidays, we must also reach out to those from whom we have become distant and bridge those gaps.”
Harry Glazer of Highland Park said he is reading a book he began last High Holy Day season by Rabbi Immanuel Bernstein, “Teshuvah: A Guide for The Mind and Heart During Elul, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur” (2016, Mosaic Press). As with Olitzky and Sabath, Bernstein takes us through Elul, but then goes on to Rosh HaShanah, the Ten Days of Repentance, and Yom Kippur. The final chapter relates Sukkot to the culmination of the High Holy Day period.
“One of its selling points is that it is written in three- or four-page modules,” said Glazer, a former president of the Orthodox Congregation Ahavas Achim in Highland Park.
For some, reading anything other than the prayer book during services is an anathema, or at least rude; for others, it is a regular and valued practice encouraged by their religious leaders. Glazer suggested that content such as “Teshuvah” can be perused between the various Torah reading aliyot, a practice he often follows throughout the year during regular Shabbat services.
“I always look for d’var Torah to print out and read for Shabbos to increase my appreciation of the weekly Torah portion,” explained Glazer. He also prints out inspirational essays he finds in Jewish publications. Assuming no one is insulted, why not tailor your reading to something that will be particularly meaningful to you, especially at a time when introspection is essential?
“One of the problems is that I don’t give myself time while rushing around doing things,” he said. “But shul is one time when I know I’ll be sitting and not looking at a phone to catch up on e-mail or catching up on things I need to do around the house.
“It seems an appropriate time to read.”