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Reflections for Rosh Hashana

Rosh Hashana 2023

Here are some of the learnings and thoughts that I am taking into the Jewish new year that will start at sunset this evening.

Bringing Teshuva throughout the year

The Talmud teaches us there are four Rosh Hashanot in the Jewish calendar.

The first is in Nissan, with a national focus, aligning to the birth of the Jewish people through the Exodus. The Kings reign and calendar are determined by this new year. The second new year is on 1 Elul, and defines the Maasrot (tithing) and a month later comes our 1st of Tishrei Rosh Hashana. Distinctively, this Yomtov is introspective and gives us an individual focus on self-improvement. Finally there is the 15th of Shvat, the new year of the trees.

Do we stop to notice that we have our 1 Tishrei Rosh Hashana, a day of judgement prior to Yom Kippur, a day of Teshuva (partially translated as atonement). Should it not be the other way around? Is it not chuzpadik to come to Shule on Rosh Hashana, celebrate and assume our favourable judgement, and only then revert our focus to ten intensive days of repentance?

Or maybe we do have it right! Because the rhythm and routine of Jewish life is full of self-directed optimism and hope. The virtues of fostering respectful and honest interpersonal relationships are not a one time a year undertaking. It’s just that we intensify our efforts on the back of Rosh Hashana (also called Yom Hadin, and Yom Terua after the piercing but broken note of the shofar).

Yom Kippur deals less with the past, and more with the future. We daven more for inspiration for what we are intending to do, not the mistakes we have made. A quote attributed to many Rabbis is that “how we act between Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah is more important than how we act between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur”.

We need more than one Rosh Hashana to be placed in our annual calendar to accommodate our own individual place amongst the Jewish people. We also need to remember that it is not “just about me” but more about the collective. The real process of teshuva is not limited to what I can do to be a better person, but rather incorporates what I can do to contribute to the growth and development of the Jewish nation.

Confronting Immortality

This year Rosh Hashana follows the original timing of creation. Adam and Chava were created on the sixth day, and then Hashem rested on Shabbat.

We read in our tefillah, Hayom Harat Olam, that today is the anniversary of the creation of the world. This implies that Rosh Hashana should be observed six days earlier, on the anniversary of creation itself.

It is therefore clear that Rosh Hashana is about the creation of humanity, evoking our role as both partners in creation (completing an imperfect world) and as the subject of the very purpose of creation.

On the sixth day Adam and Chava were created and placed in Gan Eden. They had initially been fashioned as immortal. However, when they disobeyed their obligation not to eat the forbidden fruit they were banished from their paradise. From that moment forward humankind has had to contend with our mortality.

This occurred on a Friday, just as the calendar falls out this year. The Lubavicher Rebbe cites a midrash that Adam and Chava were only instructed not to eat the fruit until the commencement of Shabbat. If they had just waited just three hours until Shabbat, G-d had intended to permit them to eat from that tree on Shabbat so that knowledge would have been given, but at G-d’s direction rather than through their own curiosity and impulse.

The knowledge of the tree was good and evil. “You may eat from every tree in the Garden, except from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. If you do, you will certainly die.” (Bereishit 2:15-17)

Many deep concepts come from the timing of this scenario and its midrashic teaching. From the recognition of nakedness, through to the procreation of Adam and Chava (leading to the morally compromised Cain), humanity failed its first test of free will choice due to a desire for instant gratification.

Judaism rejects the theological notion of original sin (that there is no individual path to redemption), but does learn from the first Rosh Hashana the notions of responsibility and self-discipline. Our decisions and actions have consequences, which can be massive in impact, but caught up in the moment we do not stop to contemplate what may occur as a result of our judgement.

The trepidation of Rosh Hashana is triggered by the conscious recognition of our mortality. This further links through to the notion of the limitation of time, and our ability to use every moment in a purposeful and constructive way. We are gifted the opportunity to achieve and to perform good deeds. When we do this, it brings joy and goodwill, to others and ourselves. That is why teshuva is firstly about “ben adam lichavro”, our connections one to another. It is also why, when the preparation of Rosh Hashana is properly applied, the festival can bring us inner joy. Including perhaps even a contentedness with our mortality.

Ultimately Rosh Hashana is a happy festival because we “choose life” and commit to creating a legacy, that unlike our physical being, will still be immortally enshrined.

Linking the Generations

Many, but sadly not all, have childhood memories of sitting in Shule on Yomtov with a grandparent. We observed the importance they placed on the Shule service and its themes, perhaps without a full awareness of the special intergenerational link.

I often contrast the environment in Shule that I enjoy today with the one I relate back to with my earliest memories. The text and themes of Rosh Hashana may not have changed, but the shule experience most definitely has.

The solemnity of beating chests, and the formality of a Rabbi in conical priestly garb, a congregation of rather chatty spectators are all entrenched visions in the Diaspora inspired shule of my youth. The United Synagogues culture of the day was all that my community knew.

The influence of Israel as the centre of the Jewish world, and the participatory, tuneful and celebratory nature of the tefillah makes Rosh Hashana a very different experience today.

Even comparing the old English translation of the Routledge to that of the Koren machzor gives a different context to the tefillot themselves. But no translation can do justice to the original Hebrew, and being able to recite this tefilah with Hebrew literacy also makes all the difference.

I am grateful that the Shules of today are full of simcha and dancing, and that the church like sterility has been overtaken by a more contemporary Jewish expression.

We still relate to the yomim noraiim as serious, but happy and fulfilling days. My grandparents, alehem v’shalom, only knew them as serious days. Many of their generation related to fasting and concept of judgment in the form of mourning for our mortality, which was certainly reflected by the tone of the Shule service of old. But in the course of our generation we have transitioned the same service into one of celebration. Our optimism for the year ahead is not misplaced.

The Mishna (T’anit 4) quotes Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel who said: “There were no days as joyous for the Jewish people as the fifteenth of Av and as Yom Kippur”. The context of this Mishna is to bring the theme and most powerful emotions of partnership and love into our Yom Kippur experience. It is also often taught that Yom Kippur is “a day like Purim” – Yom HakiPURIM. These teachings evoke happiness, real happiness and not the plutonic and materially false happiness that secular culture demands.

So, I wonder what it will be like for our grandchildren, and our grandchildren’s grandchildren as they sit in Shule in 5884, and whether their tunes, and their style of tefillah will be similar to ours? Even moreso, whether they will relate to the Yomim Noraiim in the same manner as we do, with tuneful joy, gratitude, a drive for self improvement, and a desire to continuously grow in knowledge and appreciation of our Jewishness.

Wishing all Jewgle readers a Shana Tovah.

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