Psychological and Communal Aspects of the Jewish New Year
by Reba CarmelFrom the Autumn, 2014 issue ofJewish CurrentsOUR FIRST BIBLICAL ENCOUNTER with Rosh Hashone does not mention “Rosh Hashone” (“Head of the Year”). Leviticus 23:24-26 states: ‘[I]n the seventh month, on the first day of the month, you shall observe complete rest, a sacred occasion commemorated with loud blasts. You shall not work at your occupations; and you shall bring an offering by fire to the Lord.” Numbers 29:1 refers to “a day when the horn is sounded” and elaborates the sacrifices and their aromatic accompaniments to be offered.
How, then, did this biblically ordained holy day become the “Jewish New Year”? How did the days of late summer/early fall become a time when not only the seasons change but each Jew is expected to undergo radical introspection and transformation, arguably for the betterment of self, family, community, and society? And how might the symbols and purposes of this holiday — which is so seemingly dependent upon a tight, self-consciously constructed liturgy, and which seems to trigger an annual mass migration of otherwise rationalist Jews to synagogue — resonate for Jews for whom neither liturgy, ritual, nor synagogue attendance has real meaning?
The Talmudic rabbis suggest that Rosh Hashone’s occurrence on the first day of the seventh month bears special significance because (as the Bible recounts in Genesis 2: 2) God rested on the seventh day and assessed as “good” the unspoiled elegance of all that had been created. Hence this day became the time in which all of creation, including humankind — whose creation is said to have been completed on Rosh Hashone eve — is assessed and judged. This is one example of the interpretive evolution of two short verses in Leviticus and Numbers that simply noted a holiday marked by fragrant sacrifices and triumphal horn blasts. The day became an opportunity to recreate, and perhaps transform, both ourselves and the world around us with the hope that we will be able to assess it as “good.”
Rosh Hashone, however, is not merely a day but a season. “The autumn mood in Nature,” wrote Yiddish philosopher Chaim Zhitlovsky in 1911, “is transformed in these holidays into the autumn mood of human life. The individual’s ‘sinfulness,’ incompleteness, his striving to give an accounting... for the year that has passed... his wish to become better, to wash away the dirt that has stuck to his soul, and the consciousness of death that hovers over every one of us — these are all such serious aspects of the moral life of each individual that the High Holy Days have truly earned the name of yomim noroyim, the Days of Awe” (translated by Max Rosenfeld).
THE PSYCHOLOGICAL CRESCENDO of Rosh Hashone depends upon a deftly and gracefully created symphony that sounds its first tentative notes at the start of the month of Elul, one month before the actual date of Rosh Hashone, and culminates with the final shofar blast at the close of Yom Kippur, forty days later. The transformations traditionally associated with this period of time occur incrementally. One has to begin, however, with the willingness to overcome the inertia of self-satisfaction, or of emotional numbness — to sound the shofar, as it were, and awaken to the responsibility for self-examination.
Elul, the name of the month leading to Rosh Hashone, was read by the rabbis as an acronym for ani l’dodi v’dodi li — “I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine” (Song of Songs 6:3). Commonly used as a declaration of love between spouses, and often engraved on wedding bands, this verse, and the entire Song of Songs, was viewed by the rabbis as the declaration of love between God and Israel. Traditional Jews thus begin the month before Rosh Hashone with a declaration of recommitment of “marriage vows” to God.
Psalm 27, also traditionally recited from the beginning of Elul through the end of the autumn pilgrimage holiday of Sukes, sets the tone for the self-reflective process, in language that requires translation if it is to reflect our modern anxieties and pitfalls: “When evil men assail me to devour my flesh — it is they, my foes, who stumble and fall. Should an army besiege me, my heart would have no fear...” (Psalm 27:2-3). The Jewish Study Bible characterizes this as a psalm of trust — trust, perhaps, that we are capable of embracing who we are in order to begin becoming person we want to be. Rabbi Arthur Waskow sees it as a plea for help in dealing with our enemies within, who seek to subvert our best acts and intentions. Of course, for Jews who resist responding even to “God” in quotation marks, the language of Psalm 27 may be alienating — “Hear, O Lord, when I cry aloud; have mercy on me, answer me” — yet the insight that risking change requires a certain hopefulness, a certain faith, might inspire them to seek out a non-theistic text that speaks to that reality.
IT IS ALSO CUSTOMARY to begin blowing the shofar, the ram’s horn, at the beginning of Elul. What began as the triumphal blasts noted in the biblical text evolved into a series of short and long sounds that alternate between sobbing and groaning. This wordless trope symbolizes the theme of this season: We were whole, we became broken, but we will become whole again. The shofar itself is related to the Akedah, the unsparing story (Genesis 22:1-19), traditionally read in synagogue on the second day of Rosh Hashone, of Abraham’s silent surrender to the command to sacrifice his son Isaac — to some, the quintessential act of faith, to others, an act of blind obedience demanded by a cruel, immoral God. Abraham’s deed is forestalled by the appearance of a ram, caught by its horns in the bushes, which is sacrificed instead of Isaac. The sobs and groans of the ram’s horn can thus be interpreted as a summoning of mercy, rakhamimrakhmones in Yiddish), from and for ourselves and humanity. The word “rakhamim” is rooted in the word for “womb,” and might literally be translated as “womb love” or “mother love” — something that all of our world sorely needs, as an alternative to our acquiescence in the face of the relentless public traumas of human sacrifice that we stand witness to daily.
Rakhmones must wait, however: First the tradition demands an unforgiving self-assessment and an admission of wrongdoing. This is not about mere mistakes, but about sin, individual and collective — deeds that carry, in tow, a moral judgment. While sins of both commission and omission may be highly seductive, we do know better, intuitively and otherwise, and our failure to resist the seduction helps feed the sin’s power to shape us as individuals, a community, and a culture.
In the Bible, sin is literally a community weight carried off by a scapegoat, who is led to the edge of the wilderness and sent away. (In the Mishna, the scapegoat is pushed off a cliff.) Deuteronomy presents a tit-for-tat theology — if I/we do this, I/we will receive a reward’ if I/we do that, I/we will be punished. By the rabbinic era, sin was more characterized as a debt for which we are each liable; the Hebrew word for “punishment,” paranut, comes from the word para, to repay a debt. The more we sin, the deeper in debt we become — in debt, perhaps, to our own conscience; in debt to the beloved people in our lives whom our sins have injured; in debt to the larger world, which needs our full mentshlikhkayt, our full humanness, to blossom into a healing force.
At Rosh Hashone, Jews traditionally “settle accounts” for sin by invoking the mythic biblical figures of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob to share with us their seemingly endless account of good deeds. We remind “God” to remember the birth of Isaac, to remember Hannah’s heartfelt and fervent prayers for the birth of a son, Samuel, who ultimately becomes the prophet who anoints the kingship in Israel. We turn to this formidable team of mythic, covenanted defenders to strengthen our resolve to enable us to annually undergo the arduous and even unpleasant spiritual and psychological job of self-reflection and improvement. For Jews who would rather abstain from the mythical, of course, there are actual heroes and heroines, mentors and family members, whose image and teachings we might invoke (visiting graves is also a traditional part of Rosh Hashone) to seek strength, resolve, self-forgiveness and growth.
THE POSSIBILITY FOR SOCIAL TRANSFORMATION implicit in the atonement rituals of Rosh Hashone was captured by the classic Yiddish writer Y.L. Peretz in his brief, poignant Rosh Hashone story, “If Not Higher.” It tells of a Jewish skeptic who visits the Rabbi of Nemerov in the month of Elul because of rumors that the rabbi ascends to heaven during this season to beg rakhmones for his followers. From a place of hiding, the skeptic witnesses the rabbi dressing as a gentile peasant, heading into the forest, chopping trees into firewood, and delivering it to the home of an ailing old Jewish woman, who he knows will be unable to pay him. Posing as “Vassily,” he urges her to have faith that God will provide her with the means to pay and to endure. Then, after he lights her stove, and in the course of providing other small services to her, he recites the slikhes prayer. Witnessing how the Rabbi of Nemirov has turned heavenly piety into earthly service, the skeptical Jew becomes his follower. When the other khasidim suggest that their rabbi has again risen to heaven on their behalf, the skeptic replies, “If not higher.”
It would seem that the Rabbi of Nemirov is not only engaging in this practice of mindful service simply to become a better person, but is also seeking nobility — the nobility that comes with the cultivation of real mentshlikhkayt. This aspiration to something greater than self-satisfaction, this faith in the possibility of bettering the world, this knowledge that doing so is right, moral and good, is the true goal of the transformation we seek at Rosh Hashone. It is a covenantal sensibility — and it is the source our nobility.
There are teachings within Judaism that “God” is omniscient and all is preordained. There are also teachings that insist on the human power to make choices and exercise free will. Rabbi Yosef Soloveitchik reconciles these teachings by suggesting that there exists a distinction between destiny and fate. Our genetic map largely (though not exclusively) determines personal physical attributes and mental and emotional propensities; that is fate. But we have the power to channel those propensities, to harness them to positive values, to discipline ourselves to accomplish what is difficult — and in doing so, to create our own destiny.
In other words — borrowing from the imagery of this time of year — we write our own Book of Life. As with the Rabbi of Nemirov, it is not only a personal journal. It also reflects a choice to commit caring acts with grace, humility and kindness. Leviticus 26:3 states, “if you walk in my statutes and keep my commandments and do them...” — leading the Zohar, the prime text of Jewish mysticism, to ask: Why does the verse add “and do them”? Because, the text answers itself, whoever performs the commandments is regarded as if they created the One above (Zohar 3.113a).
We have the power to shape reality. Rosh Hashone helps prepare us for that awesome task.
Reba Carmel, an attorney and rabbi, holds a masters degree in Biblical Studies from Jewish Theological Seminary. She serves on the advisory board of the Jewish Dialogue Group and works as a writer and speaker on multi-faith issues. She holds Israeli and American citizenship and lived in Israel for ten years.