Yamim Nora’im usually means Days of Awe. The forgiveness-seeker in Yehuda Amichai’s poem hears the phrase differently; for him, they are awful days.
Forgive me already now, three months
before the awful days of forgiveness.
I fear that I won’t get there.
I scatter the Day of Atonement over the surface of the whole year.
Grapes ripen in their season.
So how will sins and their atonement ripen in one day?
The seeker is eager for the atonement work of The Day—but not when it is condensed into only one day! For him, the Day of Atonement together with the nine preceding Days of Awe are an artificial season—awful, and too far away! Perhaps he staggers under the weighty personal burden of sin too great to bear for three more months. Perhaps he feels fragile and mortal. In either case, his worry is clear: I fear that I won’t get there.
He argues that grapes ripen in their season. Sins and atonement should have growing seasons as well; watered and warmed by personal climates and rhythms, ripening in their own time. Ripe sins and atonement are homegrown, not imported. Atonement out of season is chalky, tasteless, and artificial.
To scatter the Day of Atonement over the surface of the whole year is to seed every day with the work of The Day, and to be ready for its harvests.
Amichai’s forgiveness-seeker might draw the admiration of the 2nd century sage, Rabbi Eliezer, who encouraged his own students to pursue the work of The Day every day and not to wait for the season of forgiveness and atonement. The sage might speak across the centuries to Amichai’s modern seeker:
I wish that my students could conceive of sins ripening into awareness; producing fruits of atonement, each in its own season. But they, like most of us, are not inclined to spread the Day of Atonement over the whole year! Listen to how I tried to draw my students to understand what you already know. The conversation has been preserved in the Talmud: Repent one day before you die, I said. They asked me: But does one know the day before one is to die? This was the response that I had hoped for! It allowed me to say: All the more so, one should repent each day for perhaps he will die tomorrow. That way, one spends each day in repentance! Solomon, in his wisdom, said it: At all times let your garments be white… (Ecclesiastes 9:8).
I firmly believe what I told my students. While I agree that sins have their own seasons, I am also certain that mortality is the hothouse that quickly ripens awareness; and there is one ripening mortal moment equal to them all. However, uncertainty makes each moment into The Moment.
Unlike you, Rabbi Eliezer might continue, most people are unable to live each day in the ripening environment of mortality. Individuals distance themselves each day from the fear that I won’t get there. In my language, they are unable to engage in the work that is best done on the day before you die…
I understand your impatience with certain days marked for forgiveness and atonement. But to call them awful days shows impatience—even disrespect—for that which the community needs: a season for frailty and ripening, a time to let your garments be white… Most of us do not scatter the Day of Atonement over the surface of the whole year. Rather, we rely on those days that bring the entire community into a season of ripening-through-mortality.
For individuals who live in the world like Amichai’s seeker, or like Rabbi Eliezer, those days might be out-of-season and, perhaps, awful. But for the community that collectively recognizes the life changing power of mortality, the days are awesome. It is for the sake and honor of the community that the days are called Days of Awe.