February 26, 2020

The Hope and Repentance of the Days of Awe

We are entering an incredibly emotionally charged time as this past year has touched all of us personally, nationally and globally. During the month of Elul, we began our preparation, taking account of where we fell short while knowing that God awaits with open arms to receive even the most shattered among us. Song of Songs reminds us “I let my devotion sleep,” but Shema, listening attentively, “my heart hears the voice of my beloved (the Divine) knocking, whispering, Open to me.” 

Sunday evening, Sept. 29, is Rosh Hashanah, offering a new beginning. It celebrates the birthday of the world, which began on Wednesday, the 25th of Elul, as well as the birthday of the human being, six days later, the first of Tishrei. Like life itself, it is an expression of both light and dark, the sweet and the bitter. We celebrate both the joy of new possibilities represented by eating apples with honey for the promise of a sweet year while acknowledging the heaviness of year’s end, reviewing our failures, omissions and sinful behavior toward others.

Unlike Jan. 1, when we often make resolutions, empty promises often unfulfilled, this is a time for preparing and understanding where we missed the mark and dedicating ourselves to taking action, bringing more wholeness to our lives. We open ourselves to the grandeur and awesomeness of this great day and all that it can bring. 

This holiday means to return, Teshuvah, to our authentic self, the soul we often abandon. We are called to surrender to the brokenness, the pain or the unrequited love we so deeply want to repair within the tender parts of our being as well as the relationships often worn away by lack of attention or hurtful words and actions, often unaware of the unintended impact of mistaken choices. This time reverberates with possibility but demands our attention and commitment not only to celebrate but also do the work, which extends through the Asseret Y’mei T’shuvah, the Ten Days of Return, culminating with Yom Kippur. Just as Passover leads to Shavuot, Rosh Hashanah takes us to the cleansing day, 10 days later, of Yom Kippur.

The name itself hints at a much deeper understanding. The word rosh means head and shanah means “to repeat, change or year.” Literally it means the “head of change or repetition,” depending on what we decide to do.

Will this New Year maintain the status quo for us or will it be an opportunity to mend, heal and even elevate our lives in new or risky ways? The kabbalists teach that the “head” is the place of spirituality — keter (crown) at the top and right and left brain, chochma (wisdom) and beena (understanding), the center of consciousness. Rosh Hashanah is literally where we begin to assess, consider and decide how we will move forward — resisting or surrendering to who we can become.

This Holy Day also has three other names reflecting its purpose and themes — Yom Ha-Din, the Day of Judgment; Yom Ha-Zikaron, the Day of Remembrance; and Yom T’ruah, the Day of Blowing the Shofar. These themes represent the past, present and future. Yom Ha-Zikaron is when God remembers all that we have done over the past year; Yom Ha-Din is God, King/Queen and Judge, the ultimate ruler and decider of what our fate might be; and Yom T’ruah, the mighty sound of the shofar as it reflects our anguish, our call, and our desire for wholeness this coming year.

The language of our prayer book can feel foreign and hard to relate to, having originated hundreds of years ago. But we need to suspend our disbelief and modern sensibilities. We need to be willing to capture the spirit of their message, which  teaches us our place in the universe with its grander scheme that rules the how and why of Creation. Our tradition teaches it is HaShem, the Divine Creator of all.

Will this New Year maintain the status quo for us or will it be an opportunity to mend, heal and even elevate our lives in new or risky ways? 

We stand with our fellow congregants, friends and family, mere mortals, praying, singing and meditating to the Holy One, Blessed Be S/He — the Judge, the King/Queen, and most importantly the parent, the Great Father/Mother, who loves us unconditionally, waiting with open arms to forgive when we are willing to be humble and contrite.

The Talmud teaches there are three books opened now, one for the completely wicked, one for the completely righteous, and one for those of us between, benoni, mortals who in our humanity make mistakes. These coming days give us the opportunity to amend what’s recorded by turning toward blessing and goodness, as the liturgy says, “Teshuvah, Tefillah, Tzedakah,” repentance, prayer/spiritual work and charity modify the Judgment. For 10 days, we have the opportunity to take even baby steps, to shift our behavior — making reconciliation where necessary, praying/meditating for clarity and support, and bring lovingkindness to others through words or deeds. Moses reminded the people, when they were ready to go into the land, “Take care lest you forget HaShem … you become satisfied, build good houses, increase cattle, silver, and gold and your heart becomes haughty.”

It is so easy in our comfort to forget the source of our good fortune and worship the idols of materialism, ego and outer trappings. Each year we are gifted with an opportunity to transform the past, reinvigorate the present and awaken hope and confidence for the future.

The glorious sounds and profound words we hear during these coming days can move us and release the tears of pain and joy that well up within. Like a mikveh, ritual bath, we can be cleansed and transformed, shedding the unwanted layers of guilt and shame that hold us back. 

This is a time of rebirth and renewal. May it be a sweet year that brings less division and greater peace, less hate and more love, less anxiety and more serenity, and greater opportunity for each person to express their purest soul.

Eva Robbins is a rabbi, cantor, artist and the author of “Spiritual Surgery, Journey of Healing Mind, Body and Spirit.”