The Jewish community in Flagler and Volusia counties is gearing up for the High Holy Days. To better understand the celebrations, and to ask for advice in finding meaning in prayer and worship, I spent some time with Asher Farkash, assistant rabbi and program director at the Chabad of Greater Daytona. What follows is an edited interview. For more of my interviews with faith leaders, follow "Faith in Flagler" on YouTube, Facebook, TikTok and Instagram.
What exactly are the Holy Days? And how are you and your synagogue celebrating?
The Holy Days actually begin with Rosh Hashanah, which is going to be Sept. 16 and 17 this year. Rosh Hashanah is the new year, the beginning of the year. From the Bible: God created the world in six days. Rosh Hashanah is actually the sixth day of creation, when God created Adam and Eve. We celebrate the creation of man, because ultimately, God created the world, but it's our mission as the human race to bring the goal and the purpose of creation into fruition.
Ten days later, we have the holiday of Yom Kippur, which is the Day of Atonement. So that tracks back to when the Jews left Egypt, and they were in the desert, and they received the tablets. Thirty-nine days later was the sin of the golden calf, and Moses goes back up the mountain to ask God for forgiveness. And he comes down with God's forgiveness on the second tablets on the day of Yom Kippur. This is a special day, where God gives us a blank page, a new beginning.
Four days later, we have the holiday of Sukkot, which is known as the holiday of huts. When God took us through the desert, we were protected by God's clouds of glory. We live in a very shaky world, nothing's for certain. So we go out into huts and we say, "You know, we might have these big houses and these businesses and security. But ultimately, we know that our true security is in the hands of God." And so we step out into the wilderness, so to speak, in a hut and you say, "God, you're my roof, and you're my walls, and you're my protection."
Can you tell me what these huts look like? Are they tents?
The roof has to be made of bamboo or leafs. They come in all different shapes and sizes. People have gotten pretty creative; they people build them in the back of pickup trucks, on the back of bicycles. Whatever you normally do in your house, you do in the huts, except for sleeping.
Are the roofs waterproof? Or do you notice when it rains?
Oh, they're not waterproof at all. The whole idea is that you should be able to see through them into the stars. We are opening ourselves up to the elements to really see we're in God's hands. By Jewish law, if it's raining, you can go into the house.
And the fourth and finally of the Holy Days?
It's called Simchat Torah, which is the Joy of the Torah. And that's celebrating Moses coming down with the second tablets. So there was the first tablets, which were broken after the sin, and then Moses comes down with the second tablets, and God forgave us. So we conclude the High Holy Days with celebrating the Torah.
What do you do to celebrate the Torah?
You would think the best way to do it is to open up the Torah and study it, right? But we don't do that; we actually dance with it. Because ultimately, our connection with God is that deep. It's not about how much you know, it's about how much you're involved. It's about being connected. And so maybe not everyone can read, we're not going to understand, but everyone can dance. And so we grab the Torah, we hug it, we embrace it, and we dance with it.
So it's a reminder that this relationship with God is supposed to bring you joy.
There's a famous quote: If you want the generations to follow, to be involved in religion, then we got to take the "oy" out of it, and bring in the joy.
God commands the children of Israel to teach their children about this deliverance. Why is that so important that we continue to teach our children about those ancient events?
We actually believe that the Torah is not just something that happened in the past, but it's something that happens on a constant basis. History repeats itself. God didn't give the Torah 3,300-and-something years ago, but every day, God is giving the Torah again. God didn't just create the world 5,784 years ago, but God, on a constant basis, is recreating the world. We commemorate these things, and we learn about them, because it's not something of the past. It's the past, it's the present, it's also the future.
Are these celebrations open to the public?
It's open. Whenever services are happening, people come in all the time to learn, to listen. God is not just the God of the Jews; we believe God is the God of everybody.
How can we make our prayers more meaningful?
Prayer isn't just about asking God for our needs. And prayer isn't just saying thank you. Prayer is about making a connection. It's about checking in. How many times a day do you speak to your spouse? Multiple times a day. That's the relationship, right? This is how this is how my day went. I wanted to let you know, my child started walking today. I want to let you know, business is going great.
How do you get the most meaning out of studying the Torah?
Hasidic philosophy is all about applying everything. It's not something that happened 5,000 years ago; it's happening today. So when I read, "God split the sea," what does that say to me?
What does "split the sea" mean to you in 2023?
What's interesting about the sea, as opposed to land, is that the creatures of the sea live in their life source. You can't take a fish out of the water. That represents a reality where one is in tune with godliness. They're so aware of godliness, that they know that if I disconnect from my life source, I'm gone. As opposed to creatures on land: We can go a few hours without eating, we walk around, we don't feel that we're constantly in need of air, we feel like, "I can run my own show." But we cannot "step out" of God. If we do, we won't survive. You've got to always stay connected.
High Holy Days 2023
Begins sunset of Friday, Sept. 15
Ends nightfall of Sunday, Sept. 17
Begins sunset of Sunday, Sept. 24
Ends nightfall of Monday, Sept. 25
Begins sunset of Friday, Sept. 29
Ends nightfall of Friday, Oct. 6
Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah
Begins sunset of Friday, Oct. 6
Ends nightfall of Sunday, Oct. 8