In the Jewish calendar, Yom Kippur is not the first day of the year. It is the tenth day of the month of Tishrei, with the first day being Rosh Hashana. The days between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur are called “Aseret Yemei Teshuva” (the Ten Days of Teshuva). On these days, we are called upon to examine our past year and give thought to our plans for the coming year. We all want to be better people and live our lives more correctly. This desire can be fulfilled if we focus on it and make better decisions as the new year begins.
Actually, our sages described these days as a special opportunity with a dual purpose. One aspect of these days between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur can be defined as a “chance for appeal.” On Rosh Hashana, the Day of Judgment for all people, our fate is decreed for the coming year. During the following ten days until Yom Kippur, we are given the opportunity to decide on changes we want to make in our lives which could bring about a subsequent positive change to the decree on Yom Kippur. Introspection affects not only our deeds, but also what G-d bequeaths.
Another aspect of these days is expressed by the eternal words of the prophet Isaiah:
“Seek the Lord when He is found, call Him when He is near. The wicked shall give up his way, and the man of iniquity his thoughts, and he shall return to the Lord, Who shall have mercy upon him, and to our G-d, for He will freely pardon.”
(Isaiah 55, 6-7)
These verses allude to the fact that there are specific times when G-d is closer to people, days when G-d is more “present.” When are these days? The answer is in the Babylonian Talmud: “These are the ten days between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur” (Tractate Rosh Hashana, 18). If so, Aseret Yemei Teshuva are not only a “chance for appeal”, but are days meant fundamentally for closeness to G-d. The climax of these days is Yom Kippur on which G-d calls upon us to atone before Him and embark on the new year cleansed of sins.
Toward the end of Yom Kippur, we get a sense of deep purity unlike any other. The last prayer on Yom Kippur, Ne’ila, is one in which we plea: “Open the [Heavenly] gate for us at this time when the gate closes, for the day is fading away.” This is seemingly the last opportunity to “take advantage” of Yom Kippur and leave it purified for the new year.
During the Ne’ila prayer, we say the following from the slichot liturgy:
“May it be Your will, You who hears the sound of weeping,
That You place our tears in Your flask permanently,
And that You rescue us from all cruel decrees,
For on You alone are our eyes fixed.”
This prayer is based on the words of the Talmud: “From the day the Temple was destroyed the gates of prayer were locked, but even though the gates of prayer were locked, the gates of tears were not locked” (Tractate Baba Metziya, 59). Tears have power that words do not. Tears are hewn from the depths of our hearts, from that place of truth that gets covered by so many layers. Words can be said without really meaning them, out of habit or without paying attention. Tears are not shed with intent, so G-d “hears the sound of weeping.”
Together with all the members of the Jewish people, and all of humanity, we cry from the depths of our hearts: May this new year be one of health, joy, and serenity – “for on You alone are our eyes fixed!”