Rosh HaShanah Message 5782
Originally shared with the SJCS community in September 2021 to mark Rosh HaShanah 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!