Some people have asked me to explained to them what Rosh Hashana (Jewish holiday) is all about. Here you go:
Rosh Hashana is the Jewish New Year. It is also the birthday of creation. It is a tradition that recognizes human frailty, freedom of choice and responsibility. A tradition that calls on each of us re-create ourselves anew; to come closer to living in accord with our ideals and highest values. For the religious it is a chance to walk the path of God’s will, for the secular it is a chance to tune up their super-ego.
The origin of Rosh Hashana comes from the time of the Babylonian exile (6th century BCE). While Jews lived in captivity, they nevertheless adopted some of the cultural patterns of the local culture. Jews celebrate the New Year festival on the first day of the seventh month (tishri) probably because this was the time of Akitu, the Babylonian New Year. Unlike the Jews, the Babylonians believed in astral determinism – that the stars control our fate. The Rabbis took on much of the form and content of the Babylonian Akitu but rejected the fatalism of Babylonian astrology. It was God and not the stars that controlled our fate. It was God, yet God was not alone.
According to the Talmud, on Rosh Hashana we are inscribed in one of three books: the book of life, death and in-between Those of us who have been saintly are automatically written in the book of life, while those of us who have been evil are penned in the book of death. The rest are given ten days, known as “Days of Awe”, to set our lives on the correct path.
“The great shofar is sounded.” , tells us an 11th century Rabbi in Mainz, “A still, small voice is heard. This day even angels are alarmed. Seized with fear and trembling as they declare: “The day of judgment is here!” For even the hosts of heaven are judged. This day all who walked the earth pass before You as a flock of sheep. And like a shepherd who gathers his flock, bringing them under his staff, You bring everything that lives before You for review. You determine the life and decree the destiny of every creature. On Rosh Hashana it is written and on Yom Kippur it is sealed. How many shall leave this world and how many shall be born into it, who shall live and who shall die.”
Teshuva: The word itself literally means to respond or to return. The idea being that one can atone for one’s sins by returning to what is right and good (i.e. by returning to God’s will). Teshuva involves a reckoning of the soul (Heshbon Nefesh) – deep and transformative introspection.
The great medieval Jewish-Arab philosopher Moses Maimonides explains that Teshuva involves five cumulative steps: 1) Hakarat Ha-Het (recognition of wrong doing). 2) Haratah – an authentic sense of regret. 3) Vidui – an articulation of the recognition and regret. 4) Kabbalah Le-atid – a determination not to repeat one’s transgressions. 5) A chance to not repeat the transgression.
A wonderful prayer by an anonymous Confederate Soldier:
I asked God for strength, that I might achieve,
I was made weak, that I might learn to serve….
I asked for health, that I might do greater things,
I was given infirmity, that I might do better things….
I asked for riches, that I might be happy,
I was given poverty, that I might be wise….
I asked for power, that I might have the praise of men,
I was given weakness, that I might feel the need of God….
I asked for all things, that I might enjoy life,
I was given life, that I might enjoy all things….
I got nothing that I asked for – but everything that I had hoped for,
Almost despite myself, my unspoken prayers were answered.
I am among all men most richly blessed.
“Tzedakah is the root of life. When you give to others, you raise the sparks from their broken state. And you elevate your own soul. The word Tzedakah contains within it the word tzedek [justice/righteousness]. In acting as a tzaddik [righteous person], you become a spark of the Cosmic Tzaddik, and you help elevate Tzedek from poverty and exile. Here is the idea: by carrying out a holy deed or an act of life-sustaining charity, you redeem a spark from the evil forces and thus increase your own holiness….
Rabbi Menahem Nahum of Chernobyl. 1739-1797
By engaging in any of these practices, Teshuva –Tefillah – Tzedakah, one can be forgiven for the sins one has committed. Two things to note: first, not all sins can be forgiven, for examples there is no complete way to atone for murder. Second, as there are different kinds of sins there are different kinds of teshuvot. For example, if you have sinned against God you must ask God for forgiveness. If, on the other hand, you have sinned against your fellow human being, you must first ask the person you have wronged for forgiveness.
Judaism believes in second, third and fourth chances. In fact there is a strong belief that one can be ennobled by bad choices. The Talmud says that “In the place where repentant sinners stand perfect saints cannot stand”. Maimonides reflects on this passage to mean:
“Let not a repentant sinner imagine that he is remote from the estate of the righteous because of the sins and misdeeds that he has done. This is not true, for he is beloved and precious to God as if he had never sinned. Indeed, his rewards is great, because he has tasted of sin and separated himself from it, having conquered his evil inclination. His estate is higher than that of those who never sinned because they have had to struggle more fiercely to subdue their evil inclination.”
Finally , while as grown ups I think we can easily dismiss a heavenly judge inscribing us in a book of life or death (a quick observation of the real world shows you that many good people are inscribed in the book of death, and wicked people in the book of life), I think the message of the holiday is worth preserving. Rosh Hashana is about transformation. It is a holiday celebrating, to borrow an idea from Sartre, the virginity of the future and potentiality of human kind.
In trying to capture this essence of this holiday I came across a song that I think does the job. I want to wish everyone a sweet, healthy and meaningful new year. Shana Tova veMetuka.
Never Too Late
By Michael Franti
Don’t fear your best friends
because a best friend would never try to do you wrong
and don’t fear your worst friends
because a worst friend is just a best friend that’s done you wrong
don’t fear the nighttime, no
because the monsters know that you’re divine
and don’t fear the sunshine
because everything is better in the summer time
And it’s never too late to start the day over
never too late to pick up the phone
pick up the phone and call me
it’s never too late to lay your head down on my shoulders
it’s never too late to come on home
come on home
Don’t fear the water
because you can swim inside you within your skin
don’t fear your father
because a father’s just a boy without a friend
and don’t fear to walk slow
don’t be a horserace, be a marathon
and don’t fear the long road
because on the long road, you gotta long time to sing a simple song
Don’t fear your teachers
because if you listen, you can hear music in the school bell
don’t fear your preacher
if he can’t find heaven in a prison cell
don’t fear your own self
paying money to justify your worth
and don’t fear your family
because you chose them along time before your Birth
yes you did
Hold to your children
hold to your children
hold to your children
let them know
let them know
let them know