Rosh HaShanah 5779: Entering the Gates of Questions

Rosh HaShanah – everyone comes with their own memories and expectations for the High Holidays.

For example, my daughter waits for one thing: to dip the challah/apple (anything, really) in honey for the course of the next (almost) month.

How does a year renew itself?

To be certain, we add a number in the counting of the years of the Hebrew calendar – we’ve moved on up to 5779.

But actually though we speak of a “new year”, generally I experience the High Holidays as a time when people most seek the familiar tradition that is preserved in their memories of the past.

What, then, is the connection between Rosh HaShanah and renewal?

Does renewal/innovation occur like a revolution – to change everything all at once?

Or does renewal occur bit by bit – adding and changing things in small increments that are barely felt?

In my view, Erev Rosh HaShanah is not the time to provide answers.  Rosh HaShanah is an opening – the opening of the Gates of Questions. In the Torah, the holiday is known as “Yom Teruah – The day of the shofar blast”.  The shofar’s blast, said our Sages, is supposed to awaken us – “Get up and call out!” according to the piyut (religious poem) by Rabbi Yehuda Ibn Bal’am.  There are those who jump out of bed.  But there are also those – like me – that it takes them a bit more time.

An upbeat image can be found in the Psalm, “A song of ascents as YHWH brings back the return to Zion – we were as if in a dream.”  Our feet were going to Jerusalem, but our minds were a few steps behind.

The shofar calls us throughout the month of Elul.  But we were on vacation.  We began a new school year.  And we arrived to Rosh HaShanah, and yet the soul is not quite ready.  Notwithstanding, we enter the High Holidays, and now we are very much on the threshold, in another moment we will be between Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur.  When we come to the synagogue, we find ourselves between the abundance of words of generations past and the need for personal introspection.  We are between being with close friends and with occasional friends and new faces.  We are between meals overflowing with food and companionship and prayers that call us to disconnect from the material world.

These are vacation days for us but we are called to do a different type of work as it is written “to serve Him with all of your hearts.” (Deuteronomy 13:11)

How to open the gates? How to invite our soul to participate in this process – which is perhaps the greatest gift of the High Holidays?

Perhaps we are familiar with the four stages of repentance of the Rambam in the Mishnah Torah:

  1. One stops committing the sin.
  2. He expresses regret over having committed the sin.
  3. He confesses the sin before G-d
  4. When facing the sin again in the future, one consciously chooses not to commit it.

He notes that “despite that repentance and crying out are always nice, on the Ten Days between Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur is the best time.”

So here we are.  I think that the Rambam’s stages need to be translated to today’s language and to help us to do the “work” of Rosh HaShanah and the ten days until Yom Kippur.  In any case, repenting is a sort of act of renewal.  Actually, at this time, we can really only carry out the first two stages – and we understand that renewal is a process that is spread out over the entire year that we don’t rush through.  Renewal demands that we set aside time – as time is our most important commodity.

The first stage: to leave off committing the sin.  Today, I call this letting go, releasing what was in the past year – undesirable patterns of behavior, our misses.  To remove from myself the load –  it is impossible to bring our entire past into the future.  We don’t have room in our brains.  There aren’t more than 24 hours in a day (And yes, we need to sleep for at least a few hours!)  Sometimes, we want to disengage from traumatic experiences.  But it is also possible to disengage from positive experiences of the past – to say that this experience happened and will be stored in our memories.

The second stage: (expressing regret) I would call this today: taking time to feel and to speak.  We are a society that almost always is in motion.  Our tradition teaches us that the proper order of things is “We will do and we will listen” – that is to say that first we do, and then afterwards we can think about its meaning and possible interpretations. But we generally never get to the contemplation part because of all of our doing.  At the end of the day we are so tired from our doing that we don’t have the energy for this work – the only thing we can manage to do is to vegetate in front of a screen.

Prayers and the commentaries of the machzor are suggestions of words and an invitation to be a part of a common language.  The prayers of the machzor connect us to important themes, but also extremely important are the soul-searching conversations: Between me and myself – which can be in writing or as a recording. Mostly importantly, One simply sits and thinks.  What was the last time that you sat for even five or ten minutes and dedicated all of that time just for sinking deep into thought?

Also, interpersonal conversations are so important.  According to a survey that I read, when people were asked why they don’t like their job, 62% reported that it was because of problems of communication.   Let’s talk about this!  Face to face.  Not on Whatsapp.  Not on Skype.  And preferably even not on the telephone.  Ibn Bal’am’s piyut calls us to “pour out a conversation.”  In Judaism, speaking always precedes an action.

That’s it for now.  I think it’s enough.

We learn from the Talmud (Megilah 31b) that one says on Rosh HaShanah “That this year should end and its curses.  I think that this statement is not exact.  Our lives are dynamic and complicated.  It is much more accurate to say: “A year has ended as well as its curses and blessings.”  We’ll say now good-bye to the curses and the blessings of 5778.  As we sit in moments of collective prayer and I do hope we will find time of individual contemplation, we embrace them, we feel them, and we name them.

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