"Who shall live and who shall die ... who shall perish by fire and who by water?" -- Unetaneh Tokef prayer
The threat of being handed a harsh decree at the close of Yom Kippur -- and the difficulty of actually doing the introspective and conciliatory work necessary to avert it -- can motivate some people to do ... well, nothing.
On a professional level, social worker Jeff Bernhardt knows firsthand how people procrastinate. He's also knows it personally, having walked into Rosh Hashanah services unprepared more than once. The experience prompted him to begin journaling as a way to spiritually ready himself. Then, after Sept. 11 and other events in his life, as he personally struggled with issues of life and death, he found his journaling transforming into drama. The result was "Who Shall Live ...?" which follows the spiritual journeys of four diverse Jewish people, each grappling with his or her own issues and relationship with God.
The 45-minute play is often presented in synagogues as a theatrical reading on Selichot, a prayer service generally held after the Shabbat prior to Rosh Hashanah.
"The idea is that it puts people in touch with the themes of Rosh Hashanah so they can walk into the service already in an introspective mindset," Bernhardt said.
But what if you missed Bernhardt's play and Selichot altogether ... and then slept through Rosh Hashanah services? Yom Kippur is only a few days away. The Gates of Repentance will soon slam shut and you risk not being recorded in the Book of Life.
What can you do now?
"I'll take three days [of repentance]. I'll even take one," said Rabbi Mark Diamond, executive director of the Southern California Board of Rabbis.
He explains that teshuvah (repentance) is a serious and complex endeavor in Judaism that generally requires time. It involves restitution, seeking forgiveness of the offended party, not repeating the same transgression when given the opportunity and asking God for forgiveness. And only then do we come before God and ask God to forgive us as well.
"The more time and the more preparation, the better," Diamond counsels, "but it's never too late to start."
So rather than feeling guilty that you're trailing in teshuvah or trying unsuccessfully to rush the process, most rabbis, given these circumstances, advocate that you concentrate on starting the work, in an authentic and meaningful way.
Diamond suggests, in whatever time remains, to set aside moments for learning, prayer, meditation and tzedakah (righteous giving). He recommends reading "Preparing Your Heart for the High Holy Days" (JPS, 1996) by Kerry Olitzky and Rachel Sabath as a way to initiate introspection.
Rabbi Michelle Missaghieh, associate rabbi of Temple Israel of Hollywood, also suggests finding time for yourself to sit down with a pencil and paper, to think about all the significant relationships in your life -- which might include parents, spouse and children -- and to write down what's strong about each relationship and what needs work. The paper can serve as a guide not only for asking for forgiveness but also for opening a dialogue -- before Yom Kippur if there's time, otherwise afterward.
"If you can't write, make a phone call or take a walk and ask each person how the relationship has been. Take the time to talk," she said.
Missaghieh also recommends the book, "60 Days: A Spiritual Guide to the Holidays" (Kiyum Press, 2003), by Simon Jacobson, which provides daily readings and writing exercises for the months of Elul and Tishrei.
But introspection isn't the only route. Rabbi Debra Orenstein, spiritual leader of Makom Ohr Shalom in Tarzana, sees the value of relying on community to help you feel connected. She suggests listening to the sound of the shofar and letting the symbols touch you.
"There are teachers who talk about how the shofar itself can blast away sins," she said. She also suggests finding and focusing on certain phrases in the machzor (prayer book) that speak to you and that can perhaps serve as a portal in.
Stewart Vogel, senior rabbi of Temple Aliyah in Woodland Hills, also believes in the power of community. But he also realizes that services don't work for all people. Thus, for the last eight years, Temple Aliyah has made certain books, purchased in quantity specifically for the High Holidays, available to congregants during services.
Some of these include "Invisible Lines of Connection: Sacred Stories of the Ordinary" (Jewish Lights Publishing, 1998) by Lawrence Kushner and "The World Is a Narrow Bridge: Stories That Celebrate Hope and Healing" (Sweet Louise Productions, 2004) edited by Diane Arieff. Vogel explains that these books help create a sense of kavanah, or intention of prayer, for people who don't have access to or an intimate relationship with prayer.
But Vogel is dealing with people who are already in shul, which he sees as a huge advantage.
"There's a tremendous communal experience associated with Yom Kippur," he said. "Most of the prayers are in the plural and express a communal relationship."
Thus, he would advise people that it's not too late to find a synagogue.
And, in a certain sense, showing up can be sufficient. Leviticus 16:30 states: "For on this day expiation shall be made for you to purify you of all your sins," which has been interpreted to mean that the day itself has the power to effect atonement.
But if none of these ideas grab you ... or if you run out of time, don't despair. Orenstein points out that it's a misconception that teshuvah happens only once a year.
"Jewish tradition is to have a special time of year where that's a focus, but it also happens throughout the year," she said.
One instance is Hoshanah Rabah, the seventh day of Sukkot, when, according to some sages, the final judgment is really sealed. And this gives you time to catch a reading of the play "Who Shall Live...?" on Sunday, Oct. 23, at the New JCC at Milken in West Hills.
And still, if you miss that, Orenstein explains that the new moon holiday of Rosh Chodesh, also called Yom Kippur Katan, or the small Yom Kippur, is also a time for repentance. Plus, there's even a request for forgiveness in the daily prayers.
So whether you start your work of introspection and repentance a day or so before Yom Kippur and cram for 5766 or whether you start the day after Yom Kippur and get a jump-start on 5767, Judaism gives us many tools and many opportunities to do the important, challenging and ideally ongoing work of teshuvah.