Book of Life inscription relies on our actions after the High Holy Days

It is time to come home. It is time to come home to family dinners, to melodies of old, and to the sticky sweetness of apples and honey. The blast of the shofar is calling us home.

Friday evening at sundown, as Rosh Hashanah begins, we will once again gather together in shul. We will greet friends, engage in heartfelt tshuvah, and pray to be inscribed for another year in the Book of Life.

Depending on where we are in life’s journey, the homecomings we face during these Days of Awe may be varied and complex. The High Holy Days liturgy reminds us that our lives hang in the balance. This was certainly the case for Abraham and his son Isaac. On Rosh Hashanah morning, we will read from Genesis Chapter 22, the harrowing story of the akeidah, the binding of Isaac.

Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk once asked his students what the hardest part of the akeidah was for Abraham. “Was it the initial call, the long walk to Moriah, or the binding?” His answer: “The hardest part was the return home.”

We are used to thinking that it is the journey up Mt. Moriah that is the toughest part of the trip — filled as it is with fear and silence between father and son, a silence broken only by Isaac’s tragic question: “Father, I see the fire and the knife, but where is the sheep for the sacrifice?”

Yet they remain together the entire journey up the mountain. Twice the text refers to how father and son walk together as they climb the mountain. The Midrash comments, “They went both of them together — one to bind, the other to be bound; one to slaughter, the other to be slaughtered.”

We usually think that it is the final moment when they reach the top, the moment of sacrifice, that is most terrifying. But as we know, an angel of God intervenes and a ram is provided in Isaac’s place. As we hear these words chanted to the haunting High Holy Days cantillation we can now breathe a collective sigh of relief. The trial is over. Or so we think.

It is the journey back down the mountain, the return home, that is the most challenging part of the trip. Abraham returns alone to his servants. The text practically screams the absence of Isaac. In the Torah portion, father and son never speak to one another again. So too, only silence exists between Abraham and his wife, Sarah, for the rest of their days. And God does not speak to Abraham again. As a result of the events on Mt. Moriah, tragedy divides this biblical family. Future generations are left to pick up the pieces.

If you have ever hiked on a mountain, you may understand a little of what they went through. Going downhill is usually harder than going up. Even though it’s less tiring and sometimes feels easier, it is harder on the knees and feet, and there is added danger of losing your footing as you make your way back home.

This dance that we rehearse throughout our lives — this setting out and returning home again — is like the motions that we go through during the Days of Awe. We leave home and gather in shul where we are asked to examine our actions and to commit ourselves to positive change. The fast on Yom Kippur is the final push up the mountain. When we arrive there we are hungry and tired and perhaps feel that the hardest part is behind us.

But when Yom Kippur is over, the hardest steps are going down the mountain, coming home and actually doing the tshuvah, implementing the changes we have promised to make. The true test of these holy days is what happens after the peak moment of Neilah when the adrenaline has set in to push us through those concluding hours. The true test is to return home truly changed for the better. This is why we must use these days ahead not only to berate ourselves for the things we have done wrong, but to also gather the strength that we will need to return home and make things right.

May the New Year, 5767, bring peace and wholeness into our homes, Israel and throughout the world.

Rabbi Karen S. Citrin is the associate rabbi at Reform Peninsula Temple Beth El in San Mateo.