A family reunion offers the gift of belonging. On Rosh Hashanah we gather as members of an extended family, whether born into the Jewish people or adopted by our choosing. We link ourselves to those in the room and to generations before us. The celebration is a Hi Holiday, as we meet and greet those we have not seen for a while and renew our connections. Rosh Hashanah is homecoming.
Rosh Hashanah is also a time marker, “the head of the year.” As we look around the synagogue we are aware that time is a conveyor belt. Even when we feel that we are standing still, we are aging. Physical changes on the faces of those around us are a reminder that we are a year older, too. We will notice who is absent from a familiar seat due to illness or having passed away. With the chanting of the Utaneh Tokef prayer, which begins “Who shall live and who shall die, who by fire and who by water,” we are prompted to reflect on how we are using our allotted time. Prayers are in the background as we find ourselves in a safe space to reflect and harvest the goodness of the previous year: memories made; unanticipated goodness; and sought achievements reached. From such reflection comes gratitude and an inner warmth of wellbeing.
We are also given pause to acknowledge how we have fallen short of our higher self. In Hebrew the word chet, often translated as “sin,” is also used in archery for an arrow that has missed its mark. Not unlike an archer with a quiver filled with arrows, we have many more deeds that we can direct toward our intended goals. And yet, a small miscalculation at the point of the release of an arrow sends the arrow’s trajectory far afield. Calibrating the release point of our actions is crucial. Have we thoughtfully paused before speaking or pressing send on our text messages? Have we acted consistently with a conscious awareness of goodness making?
Change is at the center of becoming our best, and character matters. As part of our Yom Kippur prayers, we recite the Al Chet, which provides a list of human failings: For the chet we have done by callousness of heart; for the chet we have done of misuse of the tongue; for the chet of baseless hatred. The prayer is in the plural, which the rabbis explain recognizes that the human condition entails short-coming and interconnection. And yet, the expression “just human” also points to our capacity to choose goodness. The Hebrew word shanah, means “year” or “change.” Rosh Hashanah is the “start of change.” We are guided to rise higher toward greater trustworthiness and kindness. In the words of the 19th century Rabbi Nahman of Bratslav, “If you won’t be better tomorrow than you were today, then what do you need tomorrow for?”
At the approach of a new year, the custom is to wish others a good and sweet new year– L’shanah tovah u’metukah. But, doesn’t good also include sweet? The rabbis answer that much growth comes from pain. And yet, as we look forward we wish each other that the new year will only be marked by sweetness, dreams fulfilled, and happy memories made. May we begin the new year with “hi,” the satisfaction of greeting friends and “higher,” with the goal of refining character. L’shanah tovah u’metukah.
RABBI ELIE SPITZ IS A CONTRIBUTING WRITER.