Rabbi’s Weekly Message

Rabbi’s Message, September 12, 2023


Illustration: Guy Lombardo and his brothers, “What’s on the Air,” 1931.

            We are at the eve of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year.          
            As an American and as a Jew, I am heir to two traditions of thinking about the New Year.  My American side focuses on the new with almost no mention of the old. Our formula of greeting is “Happy New Year.” The stereotypic image is Guy Lombardo’s orchestra playing auld land syne as the ball drops, and couples kissing on the dance floor at the stroke of midnight.
            We Americans also have a tradition of making New Year’s resolutions. Our resolutions take the form of pledges of personal commitment for the time period just beginning. But again, these resolutions only tacitly acknowledge what we have gotten wrong, focusing rather on what we hope to do differently.


Illustrations: New Year’s Resolution postcards, early 20th century.  http://cgi.ebay.com/2-New-Year-
            But the Jewish approach to the New Year is more explicitly devoted to recalling the past and accepting judgment concerning our lapses in the year now ending.  Rosh Hashanah, according to our Rabbinic tradition, is the time of year when God judges all people.  What is God’s basis of judgment? Not their potential.  It is their actual record of deeds, good and bad. In other words, Rosh Hashanah is when our past confronts us. Religiously, we think of the future as the consequence of our own past behavior.
            Still, the judgment is not mechanical.  God is El Melekh Rachamim, regal, but with an emphasis on the merciful. We believe that teshuvah, repentance, averts the severity of what would otherwise be a straightforward judgment. And with repentance, we explicitly connect the past, the present and the future, in the following manner:
            Judaism informs us that teshuvah has three necessary components: charatah, viddui, kabbalah le-‘atid.  The first of these, charatah, means “contrition”.  It refers to the conscience-driven remorse that we feel about our past lapses.  The second, viddui, confession, is what we do in real time on the Days of Repentance that span the four weeks of the High Holiday season, from Selichot through Hoshana Rabbah.  The third, kabbalah le-‘atid, means our acceptance of the mandate to desist from the bad choices and replace them with good ones, going forward. We will only know if our repentance has been actual when we are faced with the same situation in which we had failed before, and this time, we get it right.


Illustration: Shofar blowing at the Western Wall. Credit: Mosaic: Advancing Jewish Thought. Photo by Awad Awada/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images.

            As we approach the New Year, I ask you to summon the emotional maturity to confront what needs to be looked at in your own character.  Enjoy the realm of the feel-good, but do not dumb down the holiday to just that domain.  Rosh Hashanah is not just apples and honey, round challah and honey-cake, gefilte fish and brisket, family and friends united around a table heaped with delectables.  If rightly understood, it is not the holiday depicted in the movie Liberty Heights, where every year, at just the critical time, the father would leave the worship service to pick up his new Cadillac and then would come back to the synagogue to pick up his family in their glamourous new wheels.
            No, Rosh Hashanah is about the hard work to focus on the one project that we truly control: the project of being our best selves. Looking back, looking at our record honestly, and doing what needs to be done—that is the path to a meaningful, as well as a happy, New Year.
L’shanah tovah tikatevu—May you all be inscribed for a good year. Amen.