What is Rosh Hashanah? In religious circles it is – or at least should be – understood as a very serious day on which we are judged and our future year determined. It is – or should be – a new beginning.
To some it is the day to go to shule even if that is not their daily or weekly practice albeit that (at least in non-COVID times) the services are lengthy. Even if understanding all the text is difficult the tunes are evocative while the sound of the shofar touches all our hearts and calls us to remember.
To some it is a day for a family gathering to remember their Jewishness and that of parents/grandparents. To some it is a day associated with special foods particularly those associated with honey. Many dip apple and challah in honey as a sign of a sweet new year and eat other foods known as “simanim” that signal goodness in many ways. So many families have their minhag (custom) which more often than not signifies the geographic origin of earlier generations.
In advance of Rosh Hashanah 2019/5780 Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks suggested 10 short ideas to help focus the experience of davvening on the High Holy Days and to ensure that each and every one of us can have a meaningful and transformative experience on these days. Their essence is as follows:
Life is short. However much life expectancy has risen, we will not, in one lifetime, be able to achieve everything we might wish to achieve. This life is all we have. So the question is: How shall we use it well?
Life itself, every breath we take, is the gift of God. Life is not something we may take for granted. If we do, we will fail to celebrate it. Yes, we believe in life after death, but it is in life before death that we truly find human greatness.
We are free. Judaism is the religion of the free human being freely responding to the God of freedom. We are not in the grip of sin. The very fact that we can do teshuva (repent), that we can act differently tomorrow than we did yesterday, tells us we are free.
Life is meaningful. We are not mere accidents of matter, generated by a universe that came into being for no reason and will one day, for no reason, cease to be. We are here because there is something we must do; to be God’s partners in the work of creation, bringing the world that is closer to the world that ought to be.
Life is not easy. Judaism does not see the world through rose-tinted lenses. The world we live in is not the world as it ought to be. That is why, despite every temptation, Judaism has never been able to say the messianic age has come, even though we await it daily.
Life may be hard, but it can still be sweet. Jews have never needed wealth to be rich, or power to be strong. To be a Jew is to live for the simple things: love, family, community. Life is sweet when touched by the Divine.
Our life is the single greatest work of art we will ever make. On the Yamim Noraim, we step back from our life like an artist stepping back from their canvas, seeing what needs changing for the painting to be complete.
We are what we are because of those who came before us. We are each a letter in God’s book of life. We do not start with nothing. We have inherited wealth, not material but spiritual. We are heirs to our ancestors’ greatness.
We are heirs to another kind of greatness: to Torah and the Jewish way of life. Judaism asks great things of us and by doing so makes us great. We walk as tall as the ideals for which we live, and though we may fall short time and again, the Yamim Noraim allow us to begin anew.
The sound of heartfelt prayer, together with the piercing sound of the shofar, tell us that all life is “a mere breath” yet breath is nothing less than the spirit of God within us. We are dust of the earth but within us is the breath of God.
Little did Rabbi Sacks know when he formulated these points that the first two were about to have particular resonance. By Rosh Hashanah of the following year the ravages of cancer would mean he would be approaching his last weeks while across the world as a whole the COVID-19 pandemic would be leaving death and ruin in its wake.
Yet even in advance of Rosh Hashanah 2020 he was still focused and to the point. And so in what would be his last pre-Rosh Hashanah communal message he wrote: “This year the Jewish High Holy Days will be like no other. Usually the synagogue is packed on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, with a buzz of noise that is not all prayer. The haunting call of the shofar, or ram’s horn, summons Jews to judgement. On Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, we are on trial, giving an account of our lives, confessing our sins endlessly, going through every letter of the alphabet, including not a few offences many of us wouldn’t have had the time, energy or inclination to commit. It is powerful, purgative, and ultimately purifying. We need this annual reset of our lives.
“The sense of closeness and intimacy that comes with the crowd makes these days what they are. ‘B’rov am hadrat melech – The glory of the king is in the multitude of people’ (Proverbs 14:28). Yet this year, almost everywhere, prayers won’t be like that at all. Some synagogue doors will remain closed. Others will have social distancing, face masks, restrictions on communal singing, and other necessary precautions that restrict the number of people present and their proximity to one another. For a community-minded faith like Judaism, this almost feels like an amputation. The services are bound to feel hollow and lacking in atmosphere. This isn’t how the Days of Awe are supposed to be.”
And so he concluded: “All religious leaders have struggled to provide the comfort of faith, the uplift of prayer and the solace of sacred space. True, Judaism has proved creative in finding alternative ways to create moments of inspiration. But as we come out of this – as we surely will – we will find in our social lives as in our private ones that there is much to mend.”
Sadly another year has passed and it is not over. No doubt he could not have envisaged the prescience of his words for yet another year.
The words of Unetaneh Tokef – “umi bamagefah – and who will pass through a plague” – still continue to reverberate as never before in our lifetimes.
On Rosh Hashanah we pray for the whole world. Let us hope that even as this year begins all humanity will see fulfilment of what we pray for in the well-known Avinu Malkenu (our Father our King) prayer: “M’na magefa minachaletecha – withhold plague from your inheritance” and “Shelach refuah sheleima lecholei amecha – send a complete healing to (all) the sick of your people.”
We should all be inscribed in the book of life.
Ketivah vachatimah tovah,
Yossi Aron OAM is The AJN’s religious affairs editor.