I am not going to use this space to lecture you on the things you must do this year on Rosh Hashanah – the commitments you must make to God, the prayers you must sing, the blessings you must recite. The traditions of this holiday are numerous, and for many of us, perhaps even a bit overwhelming, as we sit through the longest services in the Jewish year (except for Yom Kippur), trying to not fall asleep or space out.
Instead, I am going to challenge you.
I dare you to make Rosh Hashanah personal. I dare you to take this beyond “the holiday where I go to synagogue with my family all day” (although that’s true) or “the holiday where we get to eat really good food” (also true) and wrestle with what the essence of this Jewish holiday means for you.
Rosh Hashanah is, without a doubt, one of the most important Jewish holidays. It is a new year celebration that obligates us as Jews to look back on our past year; on who were and who we have become, on who we have helped and who we have hurt, those we have loved and those we have lost. It is a time for remembrance, the beginning of a week of asking for forgiveness, and an opportunity to renew again.
Rosh Hashanah is a holiday where we recognize our dependence on God for all that God does for us.
We say each year on Rosh Hashanah, that “all inhabitants of the world pass before God like a flock of sheep,” and sing the Unetanneh Tokef prayer, affirming that on this day God determines, “who shall live, and who shall die… who shall be impoverished, and who shall be enriched; who shall fall and who shall rise.” Then we blow the shofar and proclaim God our king.
If you believe in free will, you may find trouble with the idea that God determines on Rosh Hashanah the health, prosperity, and life expectancy of people for the coming year. If you are not yet sure if you believe in God, you may find the idea of this holiday being one of shepherds and sheep, dependence and loyalty to be challenging.
The Rosh Hashanah Torah portion is an affirmation of this dependence on God, even in the face of incredible personal risk or danger.
The centerpiece of the two stories we read on Rosh Hashanah is the almost-sacrifice of Isaac by his father Abraham. God commands Abraham to sacrifice his only son Isaac as a way of proving his loyalty and obedience. Abraham walks up the mountain, his son Isaac following behind all the way, and then lays his son on a stone slab, binds his son with rope, and raises his knife to kill that which is most precious to him. Just as Abraham is about to make the sacrifice, a voice from heaven yells at Abraham to stop. He does and instead sacrifices a ram that appears just in time.
At my family’s Erev Rosh Hashanah meal, with a table full of doctors who have promised to “do no harm,” lawyers who argue on the side of justice, and overprotective and loving parents, this Torah portion elicits endless shouts and arguments. What kind of father and leader of the Jewish people (Abraham) would almost kill his son? What kind of God would ask for such a sacrifice? What kind of leader of the Jewish people (Isaac) would passively walk to his slaughter?
Whether you debate the Torah portion by the dinner table, or whisper about it to your neighbor in synagogue, you’re doing more than passively absorbing it. Part of our obligation as Jews is to question and probe the meaning of our lives; do the same with the stories that shape this holiday and you will get more out of it.
This year, I challenge you to reflect on what the traditions mean for you personally.
When the shofar is blown 100 times over the course of Rosh Hashanah, I will be closing my eyes and imagining God speaking directly to me, challenging me to be a better Jew this year. When I walk with my congregation to the Mississippi River to throw seeds and bread crumbs into the water as part of the Tashlich ceremony, I will be asking forgiveness from God for all my sins of action and omission.
When the Unetanneh Tokef prayer is sung, I will focus on the last line urging “repentance, prayer and charity.” When we read the Torah portions, I will meditate on what it means to be a parent, a citizen of the world, and a Jew, and how Jewish tradition can help guide me in my life, but also challenge me in ways that may not be resolvable through debate or discussion, but only through faith.
There are enough traditions to pull from to make the holiday meaningful for any Jew. By embracing varying elements of this holiday, and recognizing that not only is it okay but even preferred for two Jews to celebrate Rosh Hashanah differently, the cloak of our Jewish community becomes stronger and more beautiful.
How will you make this Rosh Hashanah meaningful? Please let us know in the comments.