The Biblical fall feasts are about to begin, in fact, Rosh HaShanah has already come upon us. But each of these feasts is not held in isolation, they are a month-long reminder and celebration of forgiveness.
Rosh HaShanah, literally the head of the year, is an expansion of Yom Teruah, the day of blasting (or sounding of the shofar), a holiday God put into his calendar. There isn’t a lot of information about Yom Teruah in the Bible but the blowing of the shofar was often the warning cry of something dreadful that was about to come upon the people (such as Ezekiel 33 or even Nehemiah 4). On Rosh HaShanah Nehemiah read the Torah to the Israelites and after this warning they were terrified and wept. But Nehemiah told the Israelites to go to their neighbours and give them gifts.
With these examples, the Jewish people understood that Yom Teruah is the wake up call to prepare themselves to ask and receive forgiveness. Here in Jerusalem, the shofar was blown over a hundred times throughout Rosh HaShanah. The sounds of the trumpet blasts are there to awaken our spirits and prepare. What do they awaken us from? From the distractions of life, the business of the day to day, and they serve as a reminder–a warning–that important days are upon us.
Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement), a short ten days after Rosh HaShanah, is a day of fasting and a most solemn assembly as the people repent of their sins. But the ten days in-between Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur are known as the Days of Awe. During the Days of Awe the intention is to repent (an inward action from the heart) and seek forgiveness (an outer action involving another person) from those whom we have offended and hurt.
C.S. Lewis wrote in Mere Christianity “Every one says forgiveness is a lovely idea, until they have something to forgive, as we had during the war. And then, to mention the subject at all is to be greeted with howls of anger. It is not that people think this too high and difficult a virtue: it is that they think it hateful and contemptible.” (Mere Christianity, Book 3:7) This is particularly true when we are called to love our neighbour and, in our understanding, “‘Thy neighbor’ includes ‘thy enemy’, and so we come up against this terrible duty of forgiving our enemies.”
But, while we seek forgiveness from God on Yom Kippur, too often we forget how important human relationships are to the Lord. He provides ten days in the calendar to focus on seeking forgiveness and restoring relationships between people and one day, Yom Kippur, on restoring the relationship with God. We see this briefly in the Gospel of Matthew in which Jesus tells us that should you bring an offering to the altar and there recall an issue with a brother, leave the offering and go make peace and restoration with the brother before continuing to bring offerings and worship to the Lord.
Seeking forgiveness is not easy. So we get ten days to put it into practice. Should we not succeed on day one we have time ahead to try again. The desire for forgiveness and the compassion to actually forgive should come from the heart. In Matthew 18:35, Jesus clearly teaches that forgiveness must be sourced from the heart. It is only once we have settled issues with our fellow brothers that we dare approach the Lord and request forgiveness from Him. This intention is summarized in Sirach 28:3-4 where the author questions, “does anyone nourish anger against another and expect healing from the Lord? Can one refuse mercy to a sinner like oneself, and yet seek pardon for one’s own sins?”
Yom Teruah gets us ready in preparation to forgive others, and to seek restoration. This follows into the fast day of Yom Kippur where we acknowledge all of our failings before God. God has always been faithful and just and quick to bring mercy. Forgiveness and restoration are then celebrated in the Feast of Sukkot, for God delights to dwell amongst His people. Sukkot is a time of rejoicing at the mercy, grace and forgiveness of God. Trusting in is His Word that He now dwells among His people. He is holy and desires His people to reflect His character and be holy. If God is willing to dwell among his people who were once his enemies, we should also be willing to dwell with one another in communion.