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HIGH HOLIDAY FEATURE Forget millennial resolutions: Here come the Jewish Days of Awe

ENCINO, Calif., July 26 (JTA) — My husband, Larry, has already stocked the pantry with warehouse-sized quantities of peanut butter and protein bars, batteries and bottled water, crackers and Quaker Oats. A world-class worrier, he’s ready for the worst-case Y2K disaster scenario. For me, the millennium causes endless angst over New Year’s resolutions worthy of ushering in the turn of the next 10 centuries. Instead of the proverbial promise to lose 10 pounds, I feel an obligation to vow to eradicate world hunger — or teen-age mood swings. Or establish lasting peace in the Middle East. But long before the new 6-foot ball drops in Times Square at midnight on Dec. 31, a far more awesome Day of Judgment awaits us — Rosh Hashanah. And a far more awful punishment awaits the unprepared. Rosh Hashanah heralds the start of the Jewish year 5760, which falls on the first of Tishri, or Sept. 11 on this year’s secular calendar. On that day, God inscribes the righteous in the Book of Life and promptly dispatches the wicked to the Book of Death. If we’re counted among the wicked, our millennial provisions, precautions and resolutions will also count for nought; we’ll be headed for an abrupt and inevitable end. But if we’re counted among the questionable, we’re granted 10 days, the Days of Awe, to mend our ways — through a rigorous process of repentance. And if successful, we’re granted a one-year reprieve. “If we make it into the Book of Life, could Y2K still happen?” asks my son Danny, 8. “That would be unfair.” “It’s not a real Book of Life,” explains Gabe, 12. “It’s symbolic.” “And it’s not the real millennium, either,” says Zack, 15. He points out that because there was no year zero — the notation for zero wasn’t invented until at least 500 B.C.E. — the third millennium doesn’t technically begin until Jan. 1, 2001. Additionally, and somewhat oxymoronically, the secular calendar counts back to the birth of Jesus. But because of calendrical miscalculations by a sixth-century monk named Dionysius Exiguus, casually known as Dennis the Small, the 2,000th anniversary of Jesus’ birth most likely passed unnoticed about 1995. “But the computers don’t know that,” Zack adds, forebodingly. The Jewish calendar is also off by a few years — actually, a few billion. The Jewish New Year, interestingly, was originally celebrated on the first of Nissan. In Exodus 12:2, God says to Moses, “This month shall be unto you the beginning of months; it shall be the first month of the year to you.” Thus, Passover marked our march into freedom and a new beginning. In biblical times, the first of Tishri was merely a midyear renewal. God says, in Leviticus 23:24-25, “In the seventh month, in the first day of the month, there shall be a solemn rest for you, a sacred convocation commemorated with the blast of the ram’s horn. You shall not work at any of your ordinary labor, and you shall bring a fire-offering to the Lord.” In the time of the Talmud, however, the rabbis decreed the first of Tishri as a Day of Judgment before God as well as the first day of the year according to the civil calendar. They also decided that the first of Tishri marks the anniversary of the creation of the world, which, by their calculations, occurred 5,760 years ago. Never mind that scientists have since determined that the world is billions of years old. “What’s important is the meaning of the holiday, not the numbers,” says Jeremy, 10, and not one to miss any festivity, religious or secular. And here, aside from numerical inaccuracies, is where Rosh Hashanah and the millennium radically part ways — repentance versus revelry, holy versus hype and profound versus profane. So before we stock up on plastic noisemakers for Dec. 31, we’re going to listen attentively to the sounds of the shofar — haunting, familiar and authentic. The shofar, whose blast accompanied the giving of the Ten Commandments on Mt. Sinai and whose blast will one day announce the arrival of the Messianic Age, constitutes the ultimate annual wake-up call. It summons us to examine our lives, to repent for past wrongs and to redirect ourselves toward a more virtuous path. And months before we arbitrarily and whimsically whip up millennial resolutions, which we’ll invariably break before the final whistle of the Rose Bowl game on New Year’s Day, we’re going to take personal responsibility for the past year’s unkept commitments and injuries done to others. And we’ll think deeply and realistically about meaningful promises and mitzvot for the coming year. After attending Rosh Hashanah family services, before going to Grandma Miriam and Grandpa Elliot’s house to celebrate with family and friends, we will visit California’s Lake Balboa. There, according to the custom of Tashlich, we will toss bread crumbs into the water, symbolically casting away our sins. But we know that the truly difficult work of repentance is not so simple. In Judaism, for wrongs we have done to another person, we must directly and sincerely confront that person — to ask for his or her forgiveness, to make amends or restitution and to show that the transgression will not be repeated. Only once we have been forgiven by the people we have harmed, or requested forgiveness at least three times, will God forgive us. For our family, ritual is important. But only ritual that is firmly embedded in tradition, substance and sublimity has genuine and lasting effects. And for Rosh Hashanah, the rituals determine — symbolically or not – – nothing less than who shall live and who shall die. L’shanah tovah tikatevu. May you be inscribed in the Book of Life.
Jane Ulman lives in Encino, Calif., with her husband and four sons.