My soundtrack for this year — and especially this summer — has been none other than Taylor Alison Swift. I came to the Swiftie universe late; I was too old to jump on the bandwagon when she first arrived, but once my kids caught the bug, I went all in. In car ride after car ride, including to the Eras tour and back, we’ve belted her bridges and discussed her lyrics.
But it was recently, as the Hebrew month of Av passed into Elul and August came to a close, that I found myself singing “August” (co-written by the Jewish Jack Antonoff, I am contractually obligated to add) and realized that it has messages beyond breakups and lost loves. So many of her songs, I realized, are also about regret and forgiveness and memory and hope — all of which are the themes of these Holy Days.
In between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur is what’s called the Aseret Yamei Teshuvah — the 10 Days of Repentance. These days are meant to inspire us to do the work of asking and granting forgiveness, of offering true and deep apologies, and of setting patterns and hopes for the year ahead.
Of course, we have pages and pages of traditional text to guide us in this work. Maimonides, for example, has an extra book on the rules of teshuvah, repentance. The Talmud and the machzor, our prayer book for the High Holidays, offer guidance as well as prayers and supplications. And certainly, a good Avinu Malkeinu (might I suggest Babs? Or Phish?) or Adon HaSelichot (I am partial to Yonatan Razel, but YMMV) can certainly set the tone — and nothing beats Unetaneh Tokef (or Leonard Cohen’s take on it) for offering a stark picture of what happens when we don’t do the work.
But for this year, I want to offer 10 Taylor Swift lyrics for the Days of Awe that can inspire you to do the holy work of these holy days.
1. “It’s me. Hi. I’m the problem. It’s me,” from “Anti-Hero”
The Holy Days actually “begin” with the month of Elul, the month before Rosh Hashanah. That time is dedicated to heshbon hanefesh — taking a “soul accounting” and acknowledging our own flaws and misses, before we can even think about the people who did us wrong. The work of teshuvah starts with us.
2. “I think I’ve seen this film before / And I didn’t like the ending,” from “Exile”
While “Exile,” like so many of Swift’s songs, is about the end of a relationship, I am taken by the idea that this time of year is all about examining patterns and changing the ones that do not serve us. If the past year seems like a film you’ve seen before, and you did not like the ending, what do you need to do to change it?
3. “I’ve got a blank space, baby / And I’ll write your name,” from “Blank Space”
Tradition teaches that on Rosh Hashanah, three books are opened. Those of us who are wholly good are written immediately into the Book of Life. Those of us who are wholly evil, well… it doesn’t go well. And the rest of us (most of us?!), we have space saved for us. Our actions decide which blank space our name will fill.
4. “So this is me swallowin’ my pride / Standin’ in front of you sayin’ I’m sorry,” from “Back to December”
While we are in September, not December, this is the time to actually say I’m sorry. And mean it. And sometimes, yes, we might have to swallow our pride and do the hard things. But you can do it!
5. “Honey, without all the exes, fights, and flaws / We wouldn’t be standing here so tall,” from “Paper Rings”
The Talmud teaches that in the place where penitents stand, not even the most righteous can stand. The only way to learn and grow, we know, is to make mistakes, recognize our missteps… and try again.
6. “You say sorry just for show / You live like that, you live with ghosts / (You forgive, you forget, but you never let it… go)” from “Bad Blood”
If ever there was a song written for Yom Kippur, “Bad Blood” is it. Our texts make clear that apology and forgiveness is a process, requiring depth and real contrition. In fact, the Mishnah says that until you have truly apologized and sincerely asked for forgiveness (up to three times!), even God does not have the power to forgive.
7. “I just wanted you to know / That this is me trying,” from “This Is Me Trying”
Our tradition understands — even celebrates — the hard work of trying to become our better selves. And, we understand that it is just that, an ongoing process of trying. Even if, or when, we do not always succeed.
8. “Time, mystical time / Cuttin’ me open, then healin’ me fine” from “Invisible String”
This time (mystical time) is all about vulnerability, about laying ourselves bare in order to do the work of repentance, and healing. And, depending on your belief system, there might be an “invisible string” tying you to the Divine. Your call.
9. “Come back, be here,” from “Come Back…Be Here”
I mean, teshuvah can literally mean “returning,” so this one is a little “on the nose,” as they say. But, in addition to the reminder of returning to our roots and our hopes, it is also a reminder of the need to be present in our lives and in this time.
10. “One day we will be remembered,” from “Long Live”
One of the names for Rosh Hashanah is Yom Hazikaron, the day of remembrance (same name, different idea as the Israeli memorial day), and in the Unetaneh Tokef we are reminded that God remembers all of our deeds. But, even more than that, these days are also about legacy, about creating the sort of life and relationships that will outlive you.
Now, apologies in advance for the wordplay to come, but: We know “All Too Well” that this work is hard, but “‘Tis The Damn Season” to “Begin Again,” in our relationship, our hopes and our challenges. If we take this work seriously, examining our deeds and our mistakes, asking forgiveness and granting it, we can pull ourselves out of the “Would’ve, Could’ve, Should’ve” of the year that was. And while we might not be completely “Out of the Woods” when we arrive at Yom Kippur, we will enter that day knowing that we are — as much as we can be — “Ready for It.”