Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, unfolds as a four-hour ceremony within the synagogue. Marked by the resounding blasts of the shofar, it segues into a joyous feast, evening devotions, and a repetition of the ritual on the subsequent day. It’s challenging to convey the profound joy encapsulated in this observance to the uninitiated.
The prayers have adhered to a prescribed and ritualized structure for over three millennia. Despite this longevity, each year renders them anew, infusing them with a perennial freshness and beauty. These sacred invocations grapple with the essence of the human experience—birth, death, and our journey through this world. Rosh Hashanah serves as a contemplative juncture, fostering individual and communal reflection. It’s a moment to ask for a good year ahead, recognizing our difficulties.
Leonard Cohen immortalized this holiday’s essence in his poignant “Who by Fire” song.
We’re aware of our inevitable death, but the specifics remain unknown—how and when. Nevertheless, this is an annual reflection as we recite it in 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, albeit with special reservations. Due to the pandemic, the usual four-hour service has been condensed to two hours. Mandatory mask-wearing and proper distancing will be observed. Despite these adjustments, I am grateful for the opportunity to participate in person during this sacred time, even if it’s in a tent. As Rabbi Jonathan Sacks aptly mentions in his message about our present circumstances, the tradition passed down through generations continues to be upheld with reverence, custom, and joy.
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.
This encapsulates the essence of the Days of Awe.
For a comprehensive understanding, refer to Rabbi Sacks’ explanation here:
I wish you a coming year as sweet as honey on your table, filled with hope, good health, and cheerful tidings.