Rosh Hashanah is the Jewish New Year, and it involves a four-hour ceremony in the synagogue, with the shofar blasts marking key moments. The celebration continues with a feast, evening devotions, and a repeat of the ritual the next day. However, explaining the depth of joy experienced during this time can be challenging for those unfamiliar.
The prayers have followed a set structure for over three thousand years. Nevertheless, each year brings a sense of renewal, with the prayers expressing freshness and beauty. These sacred invocations explore the essence of the human experience, including birth, death, and our journey through life. Rosh Hashanah is an opportunity for personal and communal reflection as we seek blessings for the upcoming year while acknowledging the challenges.
Leonard Cohen’s song “Who by Fire” perfectly captures the spirit of this holiday.
During this time, we recognize that death is an inevitable part of life, even though the details remain uncertain. However, we reflect on this theme annually through the prayers recited from the synagogue prayerbook.
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.
“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.
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.
This year, in Montreal, we are fortunate to attend communal services in person, though with some special precautions in place due to the pandemic. The usual four-hour service has been shortened to two hours, and we must wear masks and maintain proper distancing. Despite these adjustments, I am grateful for the opportunity to participate in person during this sacred time, even if it’s in a tent. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks eloquently points out in his message that despite our current challenges, we continue to uphold our tradition with reverence, custom, and joy, passed down through generations.
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.
Rabbi Sacks explains:
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.
This is the essence of the Days of Awe. Please refer to Rabbi Sacks’ explanation here for a more profound understanding.
To conclude, Rosh Hashanah is a timeless reminder of the cyclical nature of life and the depth of human experience. Despite the challenges posed by the pandemic, its essence remains steadfast, encouraging introspection, renewal, and resilience. Rabbi Sacks’ insights on faith in the face of uncertainty resonate deeply, emphasizing the opportunity for growth and spiritual connection. Whether in person or virtually, let us embrace these teachings with reverence and joy, welcoming a year ahead filled with blessings of health, prosperity, and peace.