Only two days ago did it hit me that tonight is Rosh Hashanah. Besides the fact that it’s coming relatively early (secular calendar) this year, I’ve just been wrapped up in starting school and applying to college and just regular life that I had kind of forgotten about it. And now I want to rectify that, because I love Rosh Hashanah and so many of its strange but beautiful traditions, from enjoying apples, honey, and sweet challah in the hopes of a “sweet” year, to saying a blessing on fruit because they are the first fruit of a new year. I ‘ve always felt especially moved by Tashlich, the tradition when people symbolically “throw” their sins into a moving body of water as a way of getting rid of them–I find it a kind of comforting reminder that with a new year comes another chance to do things better.
One of the things I think makes Rosh Hashanah special is the strange effect it has over typically non-religious people: on the High Holidays, people who never go to synagogue flock to it. There’s something about the High Holidays that seems to give people a sense of urgency, a feeling that this time they should and can get it right. I liked the way that this article in Tablet describes it: just like on the secular new year, we are supposed to try to make ourselves better, but unlike on the secular new year, Rosh Hashanah is predictably cyclic–and that predictability makes people feel that while maybe they can’t lose 10 pounds by next year, hopefully by the next time they have to repent they’ll be a slightly better person. The emphasis on the life being cyclical reminds people that repentance too is a part of life–that very single year, people read the same text, spend two days painfully picking apart our sins, apologizing for sins that we, or the collective we, have committed, praising God, and that hopefully it will slowly turn us into better people. I think it’s important that Judaism emphasizes repentance as something expected and significant, because doing so makes people feel that there is always still a chance for them to be better, even if they haven’t been perfect before; to me, who somehow (maybe naively) believes that people really can shape who they are, it resonates.
And now a brief word about the role of women in Rosh Hashanah. Both the Torah and Haftorah readings for Rosh Hashanah are about barren women and God giving them children. On the first day of Rosh Hashanah, the Torah reading starts with Sarah, who had been barren until a very old age, giving birth to Isaac after God “remembers” her and her prayers. The Haftorah reading is about Hannah, a barren woman who, after intense emotional prayer (she is many times held as a model of what personal prayer should consist of), is able to have a child; she goes on to name him Samuel, which means “God heard.” Both of these stories are supposed to represent the way that God listens to prayer, and because infertility was/is regarded as such a sad and painful experience for women, God ridding a woman of her infertility powerfully conveys the extent to which God can listen and remember all of us.
Finally, here is something that I personally have found to be meaningful over the high holidays: 10Q. The site has you reflect on and answer one of ten questions each day for the Ten Days of Repentance, and then stores them for you until next year when you are once again allowed to read your answers. I discovered it last year, and sometime last week I got an email with last year’s answers. Not only was I surprised and interested by how much my thoughts have changed over the course of a year, but reading my reflections from last year helped me to get into the spirit of reflection for this year. It’s not too late to register (it’s totally free) and answer the questions, and I’d highly recommend doing so.
Shanah Tovah–I hope the next ten days prove to be meaningful for all.