Rosh Hashanah has always been one of my favorite holidays.
It’s a short holiday – it only lasts two days, as opposed to Hanukkah or Passover, which we celebrate for eight – but it carries its fair share of symbolism and importance.1 Rosh Hashanah is the start of the Jewish new year. It’s a time for reflection, as we look at our actions over the past year and examine the impact that we’ve had on the world around us. It’s a time for forgiveness and making things right; with each other, with ourselves and with God. Its a time for tradition and reconnecting with our past, both in terms of the past year and renewing the customs that have evolved over centuries. It’s a time for family, friends and, of course, food.
The strength of my connection to Judaism has varied throughout my life, as it does for most Jews. There have been times when I have felt more committed and observant, as well as times when I have gravitated more toward the secular lifestyle. But every time a holiday comes around, I find myself feeling the distinct tug back to the customs with which I was raised. When Trudy and I went to the parent orientation for Eitan’s preschool, the rabbi (it’s a Jewish preschool) mentioned that he often sees that parents of young children sending their kids to Jewish preschools because they feel that same tug from their childhood and the desire to instill the same traditions and values in their children. Now that Eitan is old enough to really start understanding and participating in some of those customs, Trudy and I have been working to make sure that he gets the chance. He helps make challah, he mixes cake and kugel batters and he wishes people a “Shanah tovah” (Hebrew for “have a good year”).2
There is more to this time of year than just enjoy than just enjoying sweet foods, though. The days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur – the Day of Atonement – are intended for purposes of taking stock of one’s actions over the past year and atoning for the mistakes we have made. I’m well aware that there have been some areas of my life where I haven’t excelled and some areas where I need to put in more effort. The details may not important for the purposes of this blog, but I believe that there is meaning in the process of reviewing, evaluating and planning for the coming year. We all make mistakes from time to time; that’s what makes us human. The question is whether or not we learn from them.
God is described in a number of different ways in the Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur liturgy, including king, father, shepherd and judge, just to name a few. I’ve probably struggled with the idea of God as a judge3 more than with any other description but recently I heard a different interpretation that resonated with me more clearly. Rather than thinking of God as the judge who wears the robe, bangs the gavel and assigns sentences, it was suggested that God is more of an umpire. God determines whether the ball is fair or foul, whether I’m safe or out and lets me know that I get to play another inning. God doesn’t even mind if I argue balls and strikes along the way, as long as I’m playing the game the right way. That is how I will be spending these next few days: recognizing the home runs (there were a couple), reviewing the at bats where I struck out and making the adjustments for the next time I come to the plate.
Shanah tovah, everybody.
1. If you were to think of all the Jewish holidays as a baseball lineup, Hanukkah, Passover and Yom Kippur are probably the 3-4-5 hitters in terms of raw power (nowadays, at least). Rosh Hashanah probably bats second; it helps set up the rest of its teammates for the rest of the inning and can do a bunch of different things so it needs to be taken seriously.↩
2. Quick story: apparently Eitan saw the cakes Trudy made for Rosh Hashanah and when he was told he had to wait until the holiday started, he responded with, “No shanah tovah cake!” Apparently the patience part of the brain hasn’t fully formed yet.↩
3. For Yom Kippur, Jews wish each other a “g’mar chatimah tovah,” or a “favorable signature.” Yom Kippur is said to be the day when God inscribes our names in either the Book of Life or the Book of Death, based on our actions over the past year. Even as a metaphor, this is a harsh way of picturing a being who is also described as nurturing and benevolent.↩