Embracing Faith and Renewal: Rosh Hashanah in the Face of Uncertainty

Rosh Hashanah is the Jewish New Year, and it takes us on a spiritual journey filled with tradition, introspection, and hope. The synagogue hosts a four-hour ceremony, where the shofar’s resounding blasts punctuate the atmosphere, creating a tapestry of reverence and devotion. However, conveying this celebration’s joy and depth to those unfamiliar with it can be difficult.

Within the prayers that have lasted for thousands of years lies an exploration of the human condition. Rosh Hashanah invites us to pause and ponder, seeking blessings for the year ahead while acknowledging the hardships of life.

Facing Uncertainty with Reverence

Amid life’s uncertainty, Rosh Hashanah serves as a poignant reminder of the fragility of life, as encapsulated in the ancient prayers that echo through the sanctuary.

On Rosh Hashanah, it is inscribed, and on Yom Kippur, it is sealed – how many shall pass away and how many shall be born, who shall live and who shall die, who in good time, and who by an untimely death, who by water and who by fire, who by sword and who by wild beast, who by famine and who by thirst, who by earthquake and who by plague, who by strangulation and who by lapidation, who shall have rest and who wander, who shall be at peace and who pursued, who shall be serene and who tormented, who shall become impoverished and who wealthy, who shall be debased, and who exalted.

Even in childhood, we encounter the abyss. The concluding lines of this prayer are:

“teshuva, tefillah and tzedaka maavirin et roah hagzera” – only  teshuva – repentance or self-correction,  tefillah -prayer, and tzedaka – deeds of justice and charity, have the potential to avert the severity of G-d’s decree.

Turning Inward with Purpose

In his book “One God Clapping,” Rabbi Lew sheds light on the process of introspection known as teshuva. He describes it as a turning inward, a purposeful realignment of our perceptions. The shofar’s call is a reminder for us to reflect on our actions before the divine, as we can access God’s presence even in our human form. This is because “G-d is in the field,” and we can approach him through our humanity.

The essential act of the High Holidays is teshuva, a turning toward mindfulness, and the first step in this process is a kind of tuning in to examine our perceptive mechanisms. When the shofar blows, it reminds us to turn our gaze inward, to shift our focus from the outside world to the window through which we view this world. Teshuva, at this time of the year, is the opportunity to assess privately our own behaviour before G-d. The expression is that at this time, especially “G-d is in the field,” i.e. accessible to us human beings. (p. 110)

This year, we are fortunate enough to come together for communal worship in Montreal despite the ongoing pandemic. We have had to adapt to the situation by shortening the service, wearing masks, and maintaining physical distance. However, even with all these changes, the sacredness of the moment is still tangible. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks’ words resonate with us, reminding us that despite our difficulties, our tradition endures. It is a source of joy passed down through generations and continues to guide us.

The various questionnaires and research exercises that have been done recently on the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on people’s lives came up with an unusual finding. Yes, of course, people missed the company. They felt cut off. They felt isolated. They felt deprived sometimes of work and sometimes of travel. All of that made an impact. But the single most significant impact of the pandemic and its consequences has been insecurity.

People have felt that they don’t really know what is going to happen – to their health, to their work, to their business, to society, to everyone and everything around them. They don’t know how long a lockdown will last or when new quarantine restrictions will be put in place or when masks will be required and when not required, and what is going to happen with testing regimes. People can’t plan for the future. They can’t know what tomorrow is going to bring.

And that is undermining their sense of security.

Finding Strength in Uncertain Times

The pandemic has created widespread insecurity, casting a shadow of uncertainty over our daily lives. However, Rabbi Sacks reminds us of the concept of “bitachon,” which intertwines faith and security and has been a cornerstone of Jewish resilience for thousands of years. From Abraham’s journey into the unknown to our current struggles, faith has been a constant and unwavering companion, providing us with the courage to face life’s uncertainties, not with certainty, but with acceptance and strength.

So, the question I simply want to ask these Yamim Noraim, on these Days of Awe, is, “how do we deal with insecurity?”. And the answer is contained, or at least the Jewish answer is contained, in that one word “bitachon” – the word that means security on the one hand and faith on the other.

How do you cope with insecurity? By faith. That has been the Jewish experience for almost 4,000 years. Judaism is about insecurity in a way perhaps that no other religion is, and Jews have experienced insecurity in a way no other people have. The Jewish story begins with Abraham and Sarah just hearing a voice, calling them away from their family and their birthplace to a land that they did not know, el ha’aretz asher areka, God doesn’t even tell them where they are going to. They are travelling to an unknown destination; they are travelling blind.

As I’ve argued many times, in Judaism, faith is not certainty. Faith is the courage to live with uncertainty.

The Essence of Jewish Resilience

This, then, is the essence of the Days of Awe. Rosh Hashanah is a timeless testament to the cyclical nature of life. It invites us to explore our humanity’s depths and emerge renewed and resilient. Rabbi Sacks’ wisdom calls us to navigate the currents of uncertainty with faith as our compass, guiding us toward growth and spiritual connection.

Whether gathered in person or virtually, let us embrace these teachings with reverence and joy. May they usher in a year filled with health, prosperity, and peace blessings. As Leonard Cohen’s haunting refrain echoes in our hearts, let us ponder: Who by Fire and who by water? Who shall find rest, and who shall wander? May we find solace, renewal, and the courage to face the unknown with unwavering resolve by embracing faith.

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