All You Need to Know about the Jewish High Holidays

09/10/2015 02:38 pm ET Updated Sep 10, 2016

The Jewish festivals are more than food and family gatherings. They are both spiritually profound, and more relevant to our lives today than most people realize.

The Jewish festivals are a trajectory of the nation's destiny, a cardiogram of our joint heartbeat. The symbols of the Jewish festivals convey information that otherwise would be lost in the labyrinth of history or distorted beyond recognition. But our festivals deliver messages not only about our past, but also about our present and future.

Where It All Began

The first in line of the fall Jewish festivals is the Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashanah (Head (Beginning) of the Year). It denotes a spiritual awakening. The festival marks the moment when a person senses an aspiration to discover the meaning of life.

Adam (Eve's husband and briefly a resident of the Garden of Eden), was the first person to contemplate life's meaning. We mark the day when he began to think about it as the beginning of the year, the beginning of the Jewish calendar, known as Rosh Hashanah.

In other words, Rosh Hashanah is not just a day on the calendar; it is a milestone of spiritual development. On this day we report to ourselves how we fared spiritually during the previous year, and seek to make corrections for the future.

Understanding the Symbols

Rosh Hashanah symbolizes our aspiration to higher values, benevolence, sharing, and caring for each other. The essence of Judaism is unity and brotherly love, expressed in the sayings, "That which you hate, do not do to your friend," and "Love your neighbor as yourself." The tradition to eat a fish's head symbolizes our decision to be at the forefront, leading ourselves and others toward unity.

The pomegranate, with its numerous juicy seeds, reminds us that we, too, are as seeds, and that it is time for us to ripen spiritually through unity. The seeds also represent our egoistic desires, which we must enjoy in a more balanced way, where we realize our aspirations through contribution to society.

The Rosh Hashanah apple symbolizes the primordial "transgression" of disunity. We dip it in honey to symbolize its sweetening (correction) through our reestablished unity. To achieve this unity and rekindle our brotherly love, we have to rise above our egoism and balance it by establishing among us positive connections.

A Day of Atonement

Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, follows Rosh Hashanah. On this day, we fast and pray for our correction. One of the most meaningful parts of the day is the reading of the Book of Jonah. It is with good reason that this part of the Yom Kippur service is so significant. The Hollywood-style storyline of the book contains a message that if heeded, can lift humanity from the global sludge we seem to be submerged in and brighten our future.

In the story, God commanded Jonah to help the residents of the city of Nineveh reform their ways, meaning reestablish positive relationships among them.

Abraham the patriarch tried to do the same in Babylon. When the majority of Babylonian rejected his novel ideas, he took those who were willing to unite and founded with them the Jewish nation.

Here is what acclaimed historian, Paul Bede Johnson, had to say about Abraham specifically, and the
Jews in general, in his book, The History of the Jews:

"What would have happened to the human race if Abraham had ... kept his higher notions to himself, and no specific Jewish people had come into being? Certainly the world without the Jews would have been a radically different place. ...To [the Jews] we owe the idea of equality before the law...; of the sanctity of life and the dignity of the human person; of the individual conscience...; of the collective conscience, and so of social responsibility; of peace as an abstract ideal and love as the foundation of justice, and many other items that constitute the basic moral furniture of the human mind."

Today the entire world needs collective conscience and social responsibility, but these ideas seem utterly unreal. At the time, they also seemed unreal to Jonah. So instead of attempting what Abraham had attempted, he took off in a ship and tried to forgo his task. But as we know, God found him, took him for a punitive ride in a fish's belly, and he repented and carried out his assignment.

Like Jonah, we are trying to waive our mission. We believe it is too difficult, too unpopular, and generally unappealing to be the world's emissaries for the message of love of others and mutual responsibility. But like Jonah, we will not be able to avoid our destiny. We are obliged to establish a society that practices these noble values, and sets an example for others to follow. It is the essence of our being "a light for the nations."

We All Are All On One Boat

"In our interconnected world, we are all on one boat. Any thought of decoupling is a mirage,"

said Christine Lagarde, head of the International Monetary Fund (IMF). She was right. And just as the sailors on Jonah's boat discovered that he was guilty of their peril, the world is pointing a blaming finger at us, Jews, for the stormy seas our global ship is sailing nowadays. As Jonah eventually took on his mission, we must take it on ourselves to unite so as to provide a model of a practical method for uniting. This is our obligation to humanity today, and the sooner we achieve it, the better it is for us and for the world.

Happy New Year!