Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, and Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement, are existential holidays that give us an occasion for clarification and renewal, for changing our behaviours and trying to improve our relationship to ourselves, to others, and to G-d.
Rosh Hashanah is commonly known as the Jewish New Year, even though the Hebrew calendar technically begins in the spring with the month of Nisan (in which Passover falls). Rosh Hashanah marks the beginning of the seventh month on the Hebrew calendar, but it came to be known as the New Year because the Rabbis of the Middle Ages claimed it was the birthday of the world’s creation. (Rosh Hashanah is one of four Jewish new years, but it’s the most celebrated.)
Aryeh Ben-Gurion, a nephew of David Ben Gurion, and an avid re-interpreter of Jewish holiday lore, told the following story, “When my grandson reached the age of Bar Mitzvah, he asked me, ‘What kind of holiday is Rosh Hashanah?’ I replied, ‘I will give you for this incoming year a diary with 365 pages and every morning you will try to write down all your hopes for that day and then before you go to sleep each night you will examine honestly and summarize how much of your expectations [of yourself] you realized. Know that whatever you wrote down in that book was the sum of your very own choices and decisions, the work of your own hands and the fingerprints you left on the world. No G-d and no superior force intervened to enforce its will on you. Your balance, your final accounting, is on the 365th page of your diary. That is Rosh Hashanah.’”
For Jews, Rosh Hashanah is the (annual) “final tally” of our actions and their meaning. But it also implies that we have a daily opportunity for self-improvement. We are obliged, year-round, to evaluate and self-correct. We write our own books, and it is the act of writing and rewriting that gives meaning to our lives.
At Rosh Hashanah, Jews greet each other with the phrase: L’shana tovah, literally translated as “to a good year.” In Hebrew, the word shana (meaning “year”), shares its root (three core letters) with the word shinui, “change”. Rosh Hashanah is therefore an opportunity for difference: a renewal and rebirth. When we wish each other a good year, we are in fact wishing each other “a good change,” “a good difference.”
Change implies recognition of what’s past – not a letting go of our old selves but an acceptance of who we have been and what we have done. In Jewish tradition, hope for the next year hinges on three things: prayer, charity and repentance, and these come to a head on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, a day often spent in penitential prayer. Teshuvah, repentance or return, requires us not to forget but to learn from our transgressions and improve upon our choices.
Repentance is a commitment to change throughout the next year: the next time you’re faced with a difficult decision and you run the risk of repeating a pattern of behavior you’ve performed before or causing an offense you’ve caused before, you’re encouraged to ask yourself, “How would I handle this decision if it were Yom Kippur?”
The Days of Awe aren’t just about starting over with a clean slate, as compelling as that metaphor may be: that would erase all the bad you’ve done, but also all the good. We can’t forget our past actions because self-knowledge, and the pain of remorse that accompanies the recognition of wrongdoing, is exactly what empowers us to do better the next time around. It’s an amazing thing about this season: Even though we race to meet the clock, to repent on a deadline, we also know that there will be a day after our Judgment Day. There’s Yom Kippur, and then we all go back to work the next day. And work it is, because we are all still works-in-progress.
Rather than pursue the “clean slate” metaphor, we might think of the poet Chaya Gafni’s analogy. Gafni proposes our bodies as texts and, she says, we are “All of us in need of a good editor.” We submit ourselves, unfinished, as merely rough drafts. We turn ourselves in to a master-editor as works-in-progress.
Delete, delete, delete – how many times do we tell ourselves to undo an action, unspeak a word? Jewish tradition teaches that throughout the year, the offenses we cause ourselves and others create little fissures that weigh us down. For Gafni, we come to Rosh Hashanah shaped like a “comma”, that marker of separation, elements of ourselves fractured and imperfect. Or shaped like an “end quotation/ Mark,” our last chance to speak before Judgment is decided. (Or, I would add, shaped perhaps like a question mark – a life still hanging in the balance, uncertain, indeterminate.) Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur offer us an opportunity to breathe deeply and radically shift our posture.
We may live life in stream of consciousness, in a constant flow of spontaneous, unedited speech and action. But teshuvah, repentance, requires us to pause in our spontaneity, to interrupt the narratives of our own lives and to pre-emptively rewrite ourselves. These days of “awetobiographic awe,” as Gafni calls them, should help us remember those moments, face the anxiety and regret that we feel in the recollecting, and inspire us to “verb replacements” – to act differently the next time.
L’shana tovah – may you have a good change, a fruitful difference, this new year!
Noam Zion’s Seder Rosh Hashanah: http://www.lookstein.org/resources/seder_rh.pdf
This Seder offers a variety of readings to inspire reflection and discussion.
Dov Peretz Elkins, Rosh Hashanah Readings: Inspiration, Information, Contemplation. (Available on Amazon.)
Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur resources on www.myjewishlearning.com – good coverage of the basics of the holidays.
High Holiday crafts and activities for families: some great ideas from Boston.
- Sharoni Sibony, Manager of the Jewish Life Department