Rosh HaShanah is such a deep, multilayered holiday, with many rituals, each with a huge variety of interpretations. In case you haven’t noticed, this is what Judaism is like in general! For me, this year, I want to focus on three aspects of this high holiday: joyful teshuvah, the importance of really going inward, and the mandate to take action. But first, I want to explore the backstory a bit.
The simple meaning that we were all taught is that Rosh HaShanah is the Head of the Year, the Jewish New Year. But in the Torah, the holiday is never called that and is referred to only as “Shabaton Zichron Teruah”, “sacred day of remembrance and sounding”, and there is no mention of it being a new year celebration. On the contrary, it is described as: “The first day of the seventh month will be a sacred holiday for you.”
By Mishnaic times 2,000 years ago, the name Rosh HaShanah and the idea that this is a new year was well established, in fact even the intricacies of today’s Musaf Service are described in great detail in the Tractate of the Mishneh and Talmud called Rosh HaShanah!
But even if we are to say that the p’shat, the simple meaning of this holiday, is “new year”, we know that we don’t “happy new year” each other with secular drunken energy like on December 31st.
And what about this being the seventh month?!
The answer is simple: we have multiple new years celebrations.
The month of Passover in Spring is the new year for us as a people. It is when we were born, freed from slavery, and it is the beginning of our holiday and calendar cycle.
Rosh HaShanah is a new year for us as people, as individuals. The focus is not our national stories, but our own stories. And the part of our personal stories that we focus on is Teshuvah, spiritual return and renewal.
Rosh haShanah does not just mean “Head of the Year”. Shanah is the same shoresh, the same root, as Shinui, change. This is when we put our heads to the task of changing our lives, changing our world
As the prayers for this day say, HaYom HaRaht Olum: today is the birthday of the world.
This day is when we ask ourselves: where I have been? where am I going? We engage in Cheshbon HaNefesh, and take a personal account of our lives. We recall and examine our journey since last year, and since last spring, the season of new beginnings, and ask ourselves: what are my harvests, my accomplishments? where does my soul need more attention? This is the time for our annual soular tune-up; it is the season for our personal course corrections.
Our tradition teaches us that this is the anniversary of the completion of creation, not the start of creation. This is the anniversary of the 6th day of creation, when the universe, including humanity, was formed. According to the mystical tradition, this is also the anniversary of humanity’s first mistake, the eating of the fruit of the tree of good and evil and Adam and Chavah not taking personal responsibility. “ Eiyekah? Where are you?” an all knowing G-d asks them as they hide in the shrubs. We are taught that this same question is asked of all us, by an all-knowing G-d, at all moments: Where are you? Is there where you are meant to be? Is this your true best self?
Orli and I were once spending Rosh Hashanah in a small town in the Catskills and a mother asked her daughter to come inside the Services for a moment. The young girl, probably no older than 6, said in a loud, exasperated, adult-sounding kvetch: “What do you want from me?!”
That is the real question of this season, but with subtle and important changes:
We learn from Reb Zusya who cried on his deathbed: “I am not worried if I was as generous as Abraham or as wise as Moses, I worry if I was the best Zusya I could have been!” We are to ask ourselves: “What do You, G-d, want from me? What do I want from myself?!”
For me, Rosh HaShanah, particularly when it falls on Shabbat, is a reminder that we are not to be sad. Our Teshuvah should come from a place of joy. We all should know that we have accomplishments to celebrate as our harvests on Sukkot. None of us have been perfect, but we should start our self-examinations from the perspective of acknowledging and feeling good about all the ways that we have hit the mark this past year
Our sages explain that there is a Teshuvah of love and a teshuvah of fear. I find the renewal from love and positiveness to be much more compelling and more lasting. Think about how we all respond to the teachers in our lives? How many of us really learned from a teacher that frightened or shamed us? How many more lessons do we recall from those who guided us with love and patience?
Martin Buber, in his Tales of the Hasidim, tells the story:
“Once, just before Rosh HaShanah, the Baal Shem Tov came to a certain town and asked the people who led the prayers there during the Days of Awe. They replied that this was done by the Rav of the town. “And what is his manner of praying?” asked the Baal Shem.
“On the Day of Atonement,” they said, “he recites all the confessions of mistakes in the most cheerful tones.”
The Baal Shem sent for the Rav and asked him the cause of this strange procedure. The rabbi answered: “The least among the workers of the king, the one whose task it is to sweep the court floors free from dirt, sings a merry tune as he works, for he does what he is doing to gladden the king.”
Said the Baal Shem: “May my lot be with yours.”
Reb Shlomo Carlebach Z”L said “It’s the Days of Awe and we all walk around with such long faces. Is there anything more joyous than to know that Teshuvah exists in this world?”
The importance of our demeanor becomes even more important when we closely look more closely at the nature of this day. HaYom HaRaht Olum, so often translated as the “Birthday of the universe”, actually means the day of conceiving, the day of the world’s pregnancy. Today is a day pregnant with the possibilities of the year to come. Today we begin the process of creating this new year, and the key is not only what we do on this day, but how we engage in this process of creation and formation.
How we behave on this day sets the trajectory for the year. It is with this in mind when the sages teach that one should be mindful of one’s behavior on this day and avoid napping or frivolity during the day of Rosh HaShanah lest one set in motion a year of snoozing and foolishness.
These 10 days of teshuvah that culminate in Yom Kippur are serious, but not meant to be sad. They are important, they are holy, and they are joyful. We have become modern experts of guilt and self deprecation. The antidote is to strengthen our resolve to be appreciative, and feel the simchah of this day of being reborn and renewed. As every morning brings a new day; tomorrow’s sunrise shines down on a new year, filled with endless possibilities for goodness, healing, helping, learning, growing and being the people we are meant to be.
If today is HaYom HaRaht Olum, the day of conception, what do we want to carry to term? What do we want to bring into the world? And how are we to birth these new possibilities?
While we may have forgotten the joyous path to Teshuvah, our traditions remind us how we are to find and experience our true selves.
Elijah, fleeing for his life, finds himself if the wilderness of Sinai. There he experienced a wind that broke that rocks, but G-d was not in the wind. An earthquake was followed by a fire, but G-d was in neither. Then there was a “still small voice” which asked “Why are you here?”and then told him to return back the way he had come. His work was not finished.
Despite the many hours that we will spend in prayers and Torah study over the next two days, and the next 10 days, we must be careful to make time to hear our own still small voices. From a place of joyful appreciation of our successes, we must ask ourselves where we need more loving attention. What have been our challenges, and how can we set a new plan in motion this year, to be all that we are capable and meant to be?
The story of Elijah from First Kings reminds us not only about the importance of going inward, but also the demand that we take action, that we translate our truths that are revealed to us in the silence, into specific deeds.
The Talmud in Masechet Rosh HaShanah describes how the new month is declared not when the moon is actually reborn, but when witnesses see it and testify and the Beit Din in Jerusalem announces it. Our calendar is not a natural phenomena, it is a partnership between G-d, the Master of Nature, and people. This is our charge: To not be passive, but to be a people of action; to see wrongs and fix them, in our hearts, in our lives, in our world
It is for this reason that Rambam details how Teshuvah works. It is not a supernatural process of G-d deciding our fates. We are to remember our deeds, recognize who we have wronged, repair these relationships, and most challengingly, create a new plan, a new operating system, so we do not repeat our past mistakes and moments when we missed the mark. Teshuvah requires more than words of prayer. It demands that we are honest with ourselves, our family, our friends, our neighbors, and emerge from these moments of truth and stillness with a script for the new year.
In the course of this Rosh HaShanah, beyond the prayers that we will sing, and the texts that we will read, and the words of Torah and Midrash that will be spoken to us, we must take the time to ask, to really ask, these three questions. And to really listen to the answers:
Where have I been?
What does my heart tell me is my true self?
What are the actions that I need to take to be that true pure self?
And I encourage you to do this from a place of joy, a happiness that comes from celebrating all that you have accomplished this year.
We don’t need to wait another moment. Please join me right now in taking a moment of joyful reflection as we begin to ask ourselves these questions.
“Teshuvah, tefillah, tzedakah: take out the bite of the evil of the decree.”
“The world stands on three things: Torah, prayer, and acts of loving kindness.”
Shanah Tovah, Chag Sameiach, Shabbat Shalom!