Route to redemption involves prayer, charity and repentance

NEW YORK — On Rosh Hashanah, according to Jewish tradition, God pencils each of our names into the books of life and death, deciding who will prosper and who will suffer in the coming year.

If we work hard to redeem ourselves during the next 10 days, the Days of Awe, we have a chance to change the course of events before God determines our fate on the Day of Judgment, Yom Kippur, when our future is inscribed in indelible ink.

It can be an intense time.

"It is inherently spiritually charged," said writer Francine Klagsbrun, author of "Jewish Days," a book examining important times during the year, to be published this fall.

"The feel of the air is different, the feel of life is different and you are more attuned to spiritual parts of life, more attuned to relationships," she said.

Rabbi Kerry Olitzky described the period as a time to consider "all that Judaism has to offer to take a good hard look at ourselves and do what needs to be done."

It's a time, he said, "to seek out people to ask for forgiveness and to make decisions about how we're going to change our lives, to ready ourselves to stand as naked souls before God."

Olitzky, a Reform rabbi, with Rabbi Rachel Sabath, wrote "Preparing Your Heart For The High Holy Days: A Guided Journal," published recently by the Jewish Publication Society.

The rabbis of the Talmud advised that there are three ways to change our entry from being in the book of death to the book of life: prayer, charity and repentance.

A central part of repentance is taking responsibility for harmful words and deeds, and it is traditional during these first 10 days of the new year to ask forgiveness from those one has possibly hurt, in a practice known as mechilah.

Some people welcome the period, and the process of asking for forgiveness, as an opportunity for reflection and self-evaluation.

It can be a time of reconciliation, an opportunity to address the pain inflicted on each other within the last year and a chance to move forward.

Asking forgiveness is "the most moving and important part of the holiday because you take responsibility, finally," said writer Esther Broner.

"Otherwise, we're just students waiting for the report card and waiting to pass on to the next grade. This way we grade ourselves."

Rabbi David Wolpe, who teaches Jewish thought at the Conservative movement's Jewish Theological Seminary, uses the 10 days for reflection and action.

"In a sort of idiosyncratic way, I do a personal inventory of my year," he said. "I call people who I believe I've offended and ask them to forgive me for specific things I've done."

Many people set aside time to study.

Veteran activist Leonard Fein, the newly installed director of social action at the Reform movement's Union of American Hebrew Congregations, plans to read books on theodicy, the exploration of how divine justice coexists with evil in the world.

Marc Stern, an Orthodox Jew and attorney who runs the legal affairs department of the American Jewish Congress, will focus on ethical works, especially the classical Jewish texts dating from medieval times and on Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik's writing on repentance.

Stern and his wife also sit down and evaluate the tzedakah they have given in the last year, and write checks to Jewish and anti-hunger charities.

Another tradition of the period is tashlich, the symbolic casting away of sins by taking crumbs out of pockets and tossing them into a natural body of water.

Broner and a group of creative feminist Jewish friends adapted that tradition for several years by building paper boats, talking about the sins that each vessel represented and sending them floating down the waters flowing around Manhattan.

"We made flotillas of sin out of paper and sent them along the Harlem River, which hardly noticed because it was so full of sin by much larger polluters," Broner said.

Broner wrote "The Telling," the story of one of the first — and most enduring — feminist seders created by the same friends with whom she created this ritual.

Participants would bake challah and then they would sing songs and dine on a festive meal eaten on a borscht- and schmaltz-stained tablecloth that had been handed down to filmmaker Lilly Rivlin from her grandmother.

"At the end we did tekiah [long shofar blows] and celebrated the birth of the world," Broner said.

Some Chassidic Jews take the casting out of sin one step further, in the ritual known as kapparot, or atonement.

As the Day of Atonement approaches, enormous flatbed trucks stacked with cages full of live chickens begin to park in neighborhoods inhabited by the ultrareligious.

In the darkness of the night before Yom Kippur eve, the faithful crowd around the trucks to select the chicken that will serve as their personal sacrifice. Each person takes a live chicken — men take a male bird while women take a hen — holds it by its ankles and swings it around their heads while incanting a blessing transferring their sins to the chicken. Then the chickens are ritually slaughtered and defeathered in a building nearby.

The chickens are taken home to become the dinner eaten before the Yom Kippur fast or given to the needy, and the money that paid for them is also donated to charity.

And after the Days of Awe, what happens to all the work that people have done on themselves and their relationships, and all the good intentions to do things differently in the coming year?

"The Kotzker rebbe once said that the hardest part of the binding of Isaac [for Abraham] was coming down the mountain" after Abraham had decided to heed God's command to kill his son, said Wolpe.

"That's true of the high holidays, too. People think the Yom Kippur fasting is hard, but it's carrying the message past the day that is really hard.

"The 10 days are a time to build up so that when you come down the mountain, as it were, you come down with some momentum."