Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish new year, is customarily a 4-hour service in the synagogue, punctuated by the shofar’s blowing and followed by a festive meal, evening services, and a repeat the following day. If you are not Jewish, it’s difficult to explain why this is a joyful experience.
The prayers have been prescribed and ritualized for three thousand years, yet each year, they are fresh and beautiful because they address the human condition – birth, death, and our process in this world. It’s a time to reflect, individually and communally, and pray for a sweet year to come without denying any of the trials we all experience.
It is this holiday that Leonard Cohen memorialized in his “Who by fire” song.
We all know we will die, but none knows how or when. Yet, this is how we read it in the synagogue prayerbook every year.
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 as a child, one confronts the abyss. And this prayer ends with:
“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.
Rabbi Lew, in his book One God Clapping (p110), explains it this way:
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.
We are fortunate to be able to access communal services in person this year in Montreal, although with special reservations. Due to the pandemic, the service will be shortened to two hours instead of four. Masks are mandatory, along with proper distancing. It’s a particularly holy time, and I am grateful we can participate in person, even if it is truncated and in a tent. The tradition has been carried out this way from generation to generation, by example, custom, and joy.
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks noted this in his message regarding our current time.
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.
And he goes on to explain:
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.
And that’s what the Days of Awe are all about.
Rabbi Sacks explains it all here:
I wish you a coming year as sweet as honey on your table, a year of hope, good health, and good tidings.