Rosh Hashanah Message 5782

ראש השנה - Rosh HaShanah - The “Head of the Year” stands apart from other Jewish
celebrations in meaningful ways. Unlike nearly all of our special occasions – those rooted in
the Torah and those added later – it has no particular association with Biblical or historical
events or with the agriculture cycle. The holiday falls, according to the traditional Hebrew
calendar, on the first day of the seventh month, an idiosyncratic choice for marking the start
of a new year. Adding to this peculiarity, the festival comes just before the culmination of
the fall harvest in the northern hemisphere, not a time when people tied to the land start
afresh. While the Torah does direct Jews to set aside this day as a time for coming together,
abstaining from work, and sounding horns, it makes no reference to the start of a new year
nor does it directly associate the few activities it mentions with repentance or forgiveness,
even as it does identify the tenth day of the seventh month as the Day of Atonement.
Historical evidence suggests that Ancient Israelites could have adopted the association with
the “new year” from the Babylonians during the period of exile between the destruction of
the first temple and the subsequent return to Judea, though the first uses of the title Rosh
HaShanah in Jewish texts only appear seven centuries later, in Rabbinic literature written
after the destruction of the second temple. We do know that the names we use for the
Hebrew months come from the Babylonian and that the Babylonians engaged in significant
celebrations of the “new year” twice in their annual calendar, during the first and seventh
months. Even as Jews seem to have drawn inspiration from the people amongst whom they
lived, they also made this occasion their own, developing extensive liturgies and customs
over centuries and assigning meanings to all of these practices that we have come to regard
as distinctly Jewish.
We are, thus, about to undertake a celebration with its own special mix of the universal and
the particular. Once the Rabbis did identify the first day of the seventh month – which the
Babylonians called תשרי - Tishrei – as the start of a new year, they also suggested that it
marked the day when the world was created, a universal commemoration rather than one
tied to the particular experiences of the Ancient Israelites. Core prayers Jews have recited
for centuries on our “high” holidays refer to all people, and core themes of taking stock,
making amends, experiencing awe, honoring transcendence, and treating others charitably
push against particularism. At the same time, we do set aside these days for coming
together in our own places of worship – as public health circumstances allow -- for
celebrating the Jewish new year in our own ways, for reading from our own ancient texts,
and for maintaining our own practice of blowing a ram’s horn in our own distinctive ways,
just as the Torah ordained.
As we re-engage at the start of the school year in the glorious enterprise of transmitting to
the next generation, we honor this balance of universalism and particularism – not just on
these days, but on all days. Not just in these times when the whole planet is focused on the
same defined and dreadful worries, but at all times. We instill in our children a strong sense
of identity and sturdy bonds of community, connecting them to profound wisdom and to
timeless traditions. We also look with them to the future and to the righteous possibilities it
could yet hold, in the very best spirit of the time and place where we live. Finally, we foster
in our students universal values and universal concerns with faith that – bringing all of
these pieces together – they will meet the challenges and opportunities of their times and
work to make our world a better place, just as we strive to do.
Laurie, Margi, and Rani join me in wishing all of you a happy, healthy, and fulfilling new
year, a year when we will all draw inspiration from the beauty and wisdom of our heritage;
from our region’s powerful faith that we can pursue the work of achieving social justice
broadly; and from the aspirations for peace, physical well-being, justice, lovingkindness,
and mutual respect that we share with all of humanity.
I am so very excited to be present when the SJCS community comes back together, in
person, after the holiday!
שנה טובה ורגילה - Shana Tova u’Rigilah – With wishes for a good and normal year!