by Cantor Russ Jayne
(Calgary) – Rosh Hashanah is more than just a holiday; it is Judgment Day. That’s why the traditional greeting at this time is not “happy holiday,” or even “good yom tov,” or “chag sameach,” but rather “shanah tovah” or, in Yiddish, “ah gut yohr” (good year). The heavenly court will be deciding our destiny and determining our fate for the new year, so our wish for each other is that these days of reckoning go well, and that we each be blessed with only good things for the new year.
Yet this is precisely what makes our New Year observances distinctively different from those of so many others around the world. For Jews, New Year’s Day is joyous but somber. No late-night partying for us. No drunken revelry as the clock strikes midnight. Actually, I’ve often wondered whether New Year’s Eve partygoers are just having a harmless, fun night out, or if there is some kind of subconscious drowning of sorrows in drink as they mourn the passage of another year and all its unfulfilled dreams.
I’ve also often wondered what we Jews would do without Rosh Hashanah. This is the season of cheshbon hanefesh (spiritual stocktaking), when we take inventory of our most personal, intimate moments. We reflect on the year gone by, our successes and our shortcomings. We consider and reconsider our relationships with God and with other people. We try to pinpoint our failings so that we may correct them for an improved year to come. We make amends with those we may have hurt in the year gone by. We put an end to the petty grudges and grievances of life, and look forward to a better, happier, more serene and peaceful future.
But what if we didn’t have Rosh Hashanah? What if there were no season dedicated to self-appraisal and assessment? Would we create it on our own? And if not, would we ever emerge from the rut we work ourselves into over a long, hard year? I imagine that we would just continue along the same tedious treadmill of life until something drastic arrived out of the blue to jolt us from our lethargy.
Without Rosh Hashanah, would we ever stop to consider whether the way we are living is the way we really want to live? Would we ever pause and become introspective enough to rethink life’s game plan? More than likely, we would just keep running the rat race and, as some wise person once observed, “In the rat race, even if you win, you’re still a rat!”
Rosh Hashanah is a time when we are compelled to sit up and take notice, to put the brakes on the mediocre merry-go-round and shout, “Stop, I want to get off!” These Days of Awe compel us to think about life, about ourselves, about our families, our relationships and our way of life, and if necessary, to do a re-think. It gives us the chance for at least an annual “compass reading” to establish our sense of direction so that, if necessary, we can alter our course and reroute ourselves. How does the voice inside our GPS put it? “Recalculating.” Most of us do need to recalculate from time to time.
So, if we didn’t have this once-a-year challenge and opportunity for personal introspection, what are the chances we would actually sit down and do it of our own volition? Probably very small indeed. Well, thank God then that we do have Rosh Hashanah. Because the time for stocktaking is now, or, as the legendary Hillel put it in Ethics of the Fathers, “If not now, then when?”
In our chaotic, often mad, world we ought to appreciate and embrace this wonderful opportunity. Honestly and truly, what would we do without Rosh Hashanah?
I wish each and every one of you in our community, and indeed the world, a shanah tovah. May we all be inscribed in the Book of Life for a happy, healthy, peaceful, prosperous, safe, secure and spiritually rewarding new year.
Cantor Russ Jayne is the Kolbo and spiritual leader at the Beth Tzedec Congregation, an egalitarian, conservative synagogue in Calgary.