In the coming year we will sit on the porch
and watch the flocks of migrating birds
Children on vacation
will be merrily running between the house and the fields
Oh, how wonderful life will be in the coming year!
— Approximate translation of the Hebrew folk song Od Tireh
Today is the last day of the Hebrew month of Elul and hence the last day of the Jewish year. And just as on December 31, the close of one year and the start of another leaves me in a reflective and introspective state of mind.
Most of us approach the new year with a sense of hope and anticipation. We like to think of the new year as a clean slate, a fresh opportunity to do better, reach higher, love stronger. But I recently became aware that, just as many approach the Christmas holidays with a sense of dread and even depression, not everyone enjoys Rosh Hashannah. For some of us, the apples and the honey, the singing and the shofar and the big holiday se’udot (dinners) just don’t cut it.
One reason for this, I believe, is that if taken seriously, the High Holy Days can be an emotional roller coaster. Rather than engaging in the riotous merrymaking and drinking of 12/31, on Rosh Hashannah we very somberly admit to our shortcomings, try to figure out where we went wrong and commit ourselves to making changes that will help to make us into the people we really want to be.
Admittedly, this is not exactly fun! If we are honest, for example, about how we have wasted our time and money, or about some of the awful things we have said and done to those we supposedly love, it can be difficult to look in the mirror. Everyone wants to think the best of themselves; none of us wants to admit that we’ve done wrong. Wouldn’t we have a lot better time if we were to play dance music, drink champagne, scream and shout and kiss at midnight? What is wrong with this type of behavior is that it is geared to help us forget our troubles, not to do something about them. Inevitably, morning comes and we’ve gained nothing but a hangover.
But why beat ourselves up? We are not evil people who deliberately set out to do wrong. Sure, we mess up from time to time. We’re human. Can’t we just accept that we’re not perfect?
The answer is that God accepts that we are not perfect. But since we are made in His image, He also recognizes that we could be much closer to perfection than we are today. So you’ve made mistakes? Yes, the Lord forgives, but not so that we can forget about it and then make the same dumb mistakes again. He forgives so that we can move on, remember where we went wrong before, and do better the next time. God accepts that we are works in progress, but He does expect us to actually make some progress. Saying “oh well, I did the best I could” is not acceptable.
So, yes, soul searching is not exactly a source of kicks and giggles. What we are called upon to remember is that God knows all and sees all; nothing can be hidden from Him. We may as well admit the error of our ways, as they are already known by He who determines our fate. And indeed, the reason that our holiday season is known as yomim naro’im, The Days of Awe, is that in the Jewish tradition, “on Rosh Hashannah it is written and on Yom Kippur it is sealed.” In between these two holidays are ten days of prayer and repentance. The “eraser” is still in play; the Lord has pity on us when we are honest about our misdeeds and genuinely commit to turning our lives around. In the liturgy, we pray that “repentance, prayer and charity avert the severe decree.” God believes in second (and 128th) chances. But if we are hard-hearted, aver that we have not done wrong and refuse to change our ways, then we have only ourselves to blame when the fate decreed for us in the new year is grim indeed.
The end of the Biblical book of Deuteronomy that we read at this season riffs heavily on the theme of choices and free will. God has given us the ability to choose whether to do right or to do wrong. Whichever path we take, we must accept the consequences. For we are also choosing whether to bring the blessing or the curse into our lives. If we close our eyes to the suffering around us, ignore the needy and the lonely in our communities, make excuses for not giving liberally of our time and our money, then we have willingly given up the blessing and have no one to blame but ourselves when our prosperity and security comes crashing down around our ears.
I do understand why the gravity of our holiest of seasons makes some people depressed and causes others to dislike Rosh Hashannah. Yet if we vow to correct our mistakes and to improve on what we’ve done right, we have nothing to fear. It is then that we can, as in the Hebrew folksong quoted at the start of this post, bring peace, contentment and happiness into our lives all year long.
Hag sameakh and may you be inscribed in the Book of Life for a sweet and fulfilling year.