My Rabbis have always stressed the importance of preparing for Rosh Hashanah during the entire month of Elul, leading up to the holiday. Let’s first consider what Rosh Hashanah is about before I try to unpack the importance of thinking, planning, and behaving in new ways prior to the holiday.
In addition to the literal meaning of Rosh Hashanah being “head of the year,” it is also commonly referred to as the “day of judgement.” On the 6th day, when humankind was created in Hashem’s image, we were granted the ability to “exercise free will in our decision making,” and most importantly in relation to our moral decisions. Rabbi Asher Resnick states that free will exists exclusively in the present and, according to the Talmud, “A person is not judged (on Rosh Hashanah) except according to his actions of that exact moment.” He postulates that Rosh Hashanah is more about the state of our free will than a cumulative evaluation of our actions the previous year.
The spiritual health of our soul, he says, is a result of past behavior, and obviously it says a great deal about our current state, but it is not the focus of Rosh Hashanah. This perspective has encouraged me to think quite differently about my own approach to the New Year. The concept of admitting our mistakes, apologizing and cleansing ourselves on Yom Kippur is fraught with difficulty, but not so challenging that it requires a month to prepare.
In Rabbi Resnick’s explanation of the concept, he references the journey of an alcoholic or someone addicted to drugs. If they have not committed to work on themselves first and foremost, then apologizing to those they have hurt will not change their essential nature. One need only look at the “twelve steps” to acknowledge the significance of personal accountability, and continued self-evaluation or “inventory.”
The more we think about who we really want to be and the more we allow ourselves to reassess our values and behavior, the more likely real change can take place within. The blessing of free will is that it is unrestricted and can be liberating if we do not let the mistakes of our past block us from true growth. However, this blessing comes with everyday challenges as well. It takes discipline, clarity and will power for us as humans to make moral distinctions in our daily lives.
While clearly the message of Rosh Hashanah is a personal and spiritual one, I can’t help but think about the importance, especially during these challenging times, to help our greater community, writ large, to move to a higher place. There is a group called Common Party, a movement to foster the ideas of “commonality and reconciliation” that just produced an article titled “The Best Response to Hate.” Marshall Rosenberg, a famous practioner of conflict resolution, is quoted in the article saying, “Peace requires something far more difficult than revenge or merely turning the other cheek; it requires empathizing with the fears and unmet needs that provide the impetus for people to attack each other.” The deeper message, one that should resonate as we prepare for Rosh Hashanah, is that this is not just about “them,” this is about us and how we engage with family members, friends or acquaintances that we encounter every day.
This same piece noted the transformation of Arno Michaelis, a former leading Neo-Nazi, who chose a new path to rescue others from violent extremism, because in his words, “my life changed because people demonstrated an inner peace necessary to defy my hostility rather than reflect it.” He further stated that “examples of kindness, compassion and forgiveness changed the course of my life.”
Closer to home, last month we held the second of a series of political discussions at the JCCNS where we invited speakers with different political points of view to share their opinions on a variety of issues. I opened the event by stressing the importance of having an open mind and really listening to ideas we may not agree with or might not have previously considered. We attracted a large crowd and I was pleased to see how most people really did respectfully listen to one another. It struck me that we can all benefit from a “more patient and generous attention to the commonality that binds us as citizens of our country,” as described in the mission of Common Party.
The prayers on Rosh Hashanah are focused on helping us find a deeper appreciation of Hashem’s existence and presence in the world, and our prayers focus on recognizing that “God is our exclusive King, and that He is aware of everything that occurs.” This prayer, and others like it, reinforce the need for me to internalize the holy attributes and values that I aspire to help guide my actions in the year ahead. Again, our task during Elul is to look inward, starting now, and to fully appreciate our capacity and our free will to change as needed, following an honest inventory of where we’ve been and what we’ve done. Hashem is evaluating the strength of our commitment on Rosh Hashanah and seeks a sincere promise from us to do better. In addition to the inherent spiritual rewards of positive change, according to our sages: as we become more compassionate, Hashem will be more compassionate to us. It is my hope that we will all become more attuned to our inner voices that encourage us to recognize the needs of others; to embrace (where necessary) our power to reconcile with those around us; and to elevate all our human interactions to a higher level of compassion and understanding. As we all move forward into the preparation for the Days of Awe, I wish you all a Shana Tova U’metukah.
Marty Schneer, Executive Director, Jewish Community Center of the North Shore