Today the Jewish community celebrates Rosh Hashana, the Hebrew New Year, which is then followed by Yom Kippur and Sukkot. To celebrate these festivities Levi J Attias has written a series of three articles about these annual events.
By Levi J Attias
The Hebrew New Year, ‘Rosh Hashana,’ commences this year on the eve of September 7. It is a two-day festival. The particular solemnity of synagogue prayers during Rosh Hashana paves the way to an annual process when we contemplate life and life’s expectations, missions and frustrations. Rosh Hashana leads to the fast of ‘Yom Kippur’ (the Day of Atonement), ten days later. Synagogue prayers during Rosh Hashana take us through the paths and trails of spiritual valleys and vales. When I chanced upon the word ‘vale’ I noted its dictionary definition; “a way to express farewell.” On Rosh Hashana, we do more than bid farewell to the year gone by. We commune with ourselves and with each other in serene moments of reflection. Many of the prayers are formulated with the personal pronoun in mind; yet, many others are communal.
This emphasizes the principle that though personal introspection and self-development are vital, we do not live in a vacuum. What we do in life can have constructive (or destructive) results. And whatever happens within our milieu can have its impact on us too, in a symbiotic relationship. The ‘butterfly effect’ comes to mind on Rosh Hashana.
This posits the idea that small things can have non-linear impacts on a complex system. The concept is imagined of a butterfly flapping its wings and causing a typhoon. Of course, a single act like the butterfly flapping its wings cannot cause a typhoon. But apparently insignificant events can, however, serve as catalysts. Whatever happened in far-away Wuhan, China, (whatever happened), spread global suffering far from China’s borders haunting us, globally.
During the forthcoming Holy Days, we place our life under scrutiny, articulating who we presently are and who we can and should be; we hug faith and renew hopes for the forthcoming year. Many of the prayers are reiterative, underlined by the deepest question: how can we live a meaningful life if we never think about the meaning of our life?
On Rosh Hashana we embark on the process of ‘Teshuva’. ‘Teshuva’ is often loosely translated as ‘repentance’. But ‘return’ is much more apt. The question remains, we return to what and to whom, and for what? And why? Return conveys a meaning much deeper than just contrition or remorse. We must ascend to the next formative stage: a craving to amend our life by returning to our true soul essence.
During these coming days, we uplift and expand our pleas for mercy and compassion; we pray for inscription in the Book of Long Life and soulful felicity. Rosh Hashana accentuates faith in a purposeful creation by a Creator, rather than a world that just simply happens by some cosmic force. We reiterate faith in purpose behind creation by way of His revelations, creations and continuing interactivity in Mankind’s affairs. Turning faithfully to faith, we fasten the belt of faith in the face of confusion.
Rosh Hashana brings its own sense of expectancy; we are conscious of standing before God, our deeds peeled open for minute scrutiny, our future is unknown but underscored by the belief that Mankind is ruled by justice. And yes, we are perplexed by what we perceive as flagrant injustices surrounding us. We take note of how little we understand. We stand in good company. Judaism’s prophets too were perplexed by questions of justice, cognizant of a merciful Judge in Heaven. We too follow in their perplexed footsteps. Through the ages, Jews came to accept this as a sacred mystery which no human mind can fathom.
Although repentance is desirable at any time during the year, we are taught that these days are particularly propitious for a return to ourselves. On Rosh Hashana, we are reminded of God’s enquiry of Adam (Genesis 3:9) “Ayeka?” (‘Where are you?’). The question posed sounds odd. Surely, He knew where Adam was hiding. Adam could only but have been in the Garden of Eden. But, “where are you?” is a question thrown at each of us, consistently: where are we along the continuum of our personal life? What account can we give of ourselves at any given point in time? Rabbi Shalom of Belz said “the worst exile is when a person is exiled within himself.” These coming days are a striking blend of animated mindfulness and unquenchable hope as we are nudged to return to the core of our essence. The Greek poet Pindar, put it marvelously, “Become who you are by learning who you are.” During Rosh Hashana, we plunge into the womb of our being. Incisively asking if we have manifested our calling or have we failed to actualise our potentials? Have we even taken the trouble to search them out?
It’s been said that man is always trying to make something for himself rather than of himself. The Bible tells us not to deceive another (Leviticus 25:17). Rabbi Mendel of Kotzk admonished: “Deceiving another person is a sin. Deceiving oneself is stupidity.” Though the familiar brings us a sense of comfort, the emergence of a new personality will take us on an excursion of self-exploration into the unknown. Often, the emergence of the new personality is so anxiety-ridden that we shelve the process preferring to remain immersed in the familiar, foregoing the growing pains necessary for our personal progression.
The Bible calls Rosh Hashana “the day when the horn is sounded.” The ram’s horn, the ‘shofar’ is blown in synagogues during morning services. The shofar is a natural wind instrument. Its most important functions, as described in the Bible, were to herald the new moon and to call the population to assembly. It was also sounded at Mt Sinai when the Jews heard the Ten Commandments. It commemorates the aborted sacrifice of Isaac by his father, Abraham, when a ram caught in the thicket was used as a substitute sacrifice. The shofar’s wailing notes alert us to our life’s winding paths waxing and waning in daily contortions, echoing the principle that ninety-nine right turns and one wrong turn makes us lose the way altogether. But sincere, pervading repentance and drip-fed hope are within a breath’s distance. The blower of the shofar injects his breath into the hollowness of this most rudimentary of instruments. Precise notes are blown with the shofar in blasts which prepare mind and soul to a spiritual process. The blasts act like an alarm clock, nudging us to awaken to a life truly lived.
Just like calendars, our days are numbered. Every day is a gift. Our vulnerability meets God’s infinity as we grope for His exalted justice and benevolence. Rosh Hashana ennobles our human stature as it is brushed by a deep sense of the solemn and time-sanctified rituals, immersed in fervent faith and regenerating hope. The shrill blasts on the shofar serve to nudge us in reverent exclamation: “if not now, when?”
‘Shana tova umetuka’ - a good and sweet year to all.