We are in the midst of the Jewish High holidays, which began with the first day of Rosh Hashanah on September 18 and closes with Yom Kippur, which begins before sundown today and ends after nightfall tomorrow. In the Jewish calendar it is a time of turning, and of new beginnings.
This holiday has much to teach us about change, and growth, and awakening – all themes we have explored this month.
In Hebrew, Rosh Hashanah means, literally, “head of the year” or “first of the year.” It is the Jewish New Year, even though it falls on the first day of the seventh month of the Jewish calendar.
Traditionally, Rosh Hashanah begins a period known as the ten days of awe, or the Days of Repentance. It’s a time for introspection, self-examination, a review of the year past. It’s also a time of reconciliation, forgiveness, and renewal.
In Jewish tradition, the new year begins at the time that God created Adam, the first human. According to the Talmud, God created Adam, and thus mankind, on the first day of the month Tishri, which is the seventh month, the month known as Tishri.
Rosh Hashanah also is referred to traditionally as the Day of Judgment. On this day, in traditional belief, God opens the Book of Life and begins to decide who shall live and who shall die. One’s actions taken in the ten days before Yom Kippur can change this result, and therefore observers during this period focus on the three ways in which they can ensure their names are written in the book of life.
What are these ways? They are repentance, prayer, and charity, or good works. Together, these practices are known as teshuvah, or “turning.” They represent our opportunity to take a fresh look, renew, and affirm choices that serve us better.
Let’s look at these concepts, and see what meaning we can draw.
First, repentance. For many, it raises images of the judgment of a harsh god. However, the source of the word is just to regret, to be sorry. I think of awareness, consciousness, unfolding. We’ve taken the opportunity to look back and see that we might have behaved in a different way, made a different choice. It is a time of awareness, reconciliation, and healing.
The next step is prayer. We are a community that strongly affirms the energy of prayer. We align our hearts to connect with source, to know that we are one, and to affirm the truth of our wholeness.. Prayer is a primary way we rest in spirit, individually and collectively.
Looking at good works, what does that mean but service? We are the hands, the feet and the voice of the divine here on earth, and the goal of our awakening is to be that love and compassion. As Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore said, “I slept and dreamt that life was joy/ I awoke and saw that life was service/ I acted and behold, service was joy.”
You may view as metaphorical the imagery of God opening a book and examining it for names. However, it is a rich image with a great deal of meaning for us.
We ask ourselves the questions – how do I treat others? What judgments or assumptions, or beliefs, do I have that injure others, that prevent me from seeing them in their true and holy light? How necessary it is to have a period of time devoted to the notion that we should look back, reflect on our actions, and consider how we may live a life in the coming year that brings us closer to each other and to God.
Several of us just completed seven weeks of a discussion group on justice and equity, exploring issues of individual and systematic racism in ourselves and our society. We are so grateful for the wisdom and effort that Danielle Wright put in as our discussion leader. I can’t imagine a better time for that discussion than during this time of reflection and commitment to new beginnings, as we face the issues of racism and justice that demand our attention and collective wisdom.
This invitation to reflect, grow and change is new every year, for whatever issues we carry that need resolution. The opportunity is always fresh, even if the ritual is ancient.
We may be tempted during this process to focus on the many ways we perceive we have fallen short, and those should be examined. However, Rosh Hashanah also calls on us to examine the ways that we have been a blessing. We can grow and change without heaping judgment on ourselves. When we see ourselves with acceptance and openness, we see more clearly. When we see ourselves more clearly, we are more able to grow and change.
Rabbi Robin Nafshi of Temple Beth Jacob in Concord, New Hampshire, in 2017 wrote that “T’shuvah involves many steps. The final stage of t’shuvah is accepting who we are and realizing that our flaws make us unique. Our challenge in life is not to hide who we are, hide our inner voice, or live like other people, but to become more like ourselves.” She quoted the great Chasidic master, the Ba’al Shem Tov, who taught, “Compare yourself not with anyone else, lest you spoil God’s curriculum.”
Our goal is to become the light that we are, that no one else can be. God’s curriculum for you – is you. Is there room for growth? Absolutely. Can you be kind to yourself in the process? You must.
These high holidays teach us that renewal is an ongoing gift and opportunity. Every day we have the choice to reflect, renew, and begin again. Every moment of our lives gives us that opportunity. What can we do in the weeks and months ahead to continue our growth, to share our gifts? How can I contribute to making the world a better place?
The message of Rosh Hashanah is that the world awakens as we do.
Look at the three practices Rosh Hashanah encourages – repentance, prayer, and service. What might they mean for you, in whatever language you select? Reflect, connect, and act. Breathe, light a candle, go to work. There is so much to be done.
So, may you have a blessed year – Shana tovah.