The Yamim Noraim, High Holidays, are a time of personal reflection; gazing at the year past and at the year that is yet to be. As the month of Elul arrives, Jews the world over begin the process of taking a cheshbon hanefesh, an accounting of the soul, an accounting not only of what we have done but also of what we have not done as people living in God’s created world. From the time we welcome in and celebrate Rosh Chodesh Elul (the first of the month of Elul) until we hear the final sound of the shofar signaling the end of the Yemei Teshuvah (Days of Repentance), we pray that our t’shuvah, t’filah and tzedakah, will be enough to sustain us for the year to come. We pray that God and our fellow men and women will judge us with righteousness and mercy as we atone for our actions as well as our inactions from the prior year. As we stand again on the threshold of the New Year, we must recognize our partnership with God in creation and commit ourselves to tikkun olam and to the actions that will help repair our world.
The medieval prayer Unetane Tokef, chanted on Yom Kippur puts it this way: “repentance (t’shuvah), prayer (t’filah) and charity (tzedakah) temper judgment’s severe decree.” What we learn from this beautiful prayer is that each of these acts -- charity, prayer and repentance -- is necessary to lead us to the path of redemption.
The Talmud teaches that the merit in the fast day lies in the charity dispensed. This serves to teach us that our fasting, our self reflection and our atonement alone are not complete without acts of charity, without acts of loving kindness and without acts that demonstrate compassion towards our fellow human beings. This is our charge during the Yamim Noraim: to remember our partnership and covenant with God, to perform acts of righteousness and to work together to fulfill the words of the prophet Isaiah, who cried out that we should strive to “unlock the fetters of wickedness…let the oppressed go free…share your bread with the hungry, and take the wretched poor into your home” (Isaiah 58:6-8).
The goal of this guide is to give both individuals and congregations a resource that helps them to integrate and incorporate social action programming into their holiday practices. Three social justice themes are highlighted: Hunger, Environment and the Criminal Justice. Activities around these themes for individuals and families as well as program ideas for congregations, youth groups and religious schools are featured. Users will find program ideas that relate to the month of Elul, which precedes the Holy Days, Rosh HaShanah and Tashlich services, the intermediate days, and Yom Kippur. Many of the ideas and programs that are included can be adapted and changed, based on individual need.
In addition, the guide features a section entitled Kick-off Programs,which includes long term projects that can be launched during the High Holiday season and run throughout the year. These programs range from year-long food drives to designating an entire year to social action.
Finally, there is a list of web-based resources that will help you learn more about each specific topic covered. For general information on celebrating the High Holidays, visit the Union for Reform Judaism's holiday website.