Though every yom-tov is a holy day, Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur are spiritual peaks. They draw us upward despite ourselves.
Earth-bound, physical and materialistic we may be during the rest of the year, but with the advent of the yamim nora’im – the “awesome days” – we all find some spirituality within us.
We discover the God with whom we hardly connect for most of the year, the prayers we usually dismiss as quaint and irrelevant, and the Judaism we rarely take too seriously.
We discover ourselves by encountering dimensions of our existence that we generally don’t even notice. It’s awesome!
The English name, “High Holydays,” does not talk about awe but about holiness. “Holy” is from the Middle English “hool”, meaning whole, perfect or excellent.
On the other hand, the Hebrew kadosh, with all its variations – kodesh, kiddush, kiddushin, k’dushah, k’doshim, hekdesh, etc. – conveys the sense of separateness. To be holy is to be set apart.
When the Torah commanded us to be holy (Lev. 19), one commentator said it meant to keep apart from sin; another said, kaddesh atzm’cha b’muttar lach, sanctify yourself (i.e. maintain apartness) even in what is permitted to you.
In that sense it’s a holy day any time we are careful about where we go, what we do and how we do it, what we say and how we speak.
Holiness is not making yourself into a hermit and withdrawing from the world, but living in the world and doing everyday things with refinement, care and conscience. Not only the yamim nora’im but every day can be a High Holy Day.