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High Holidays Feature (3): Rosh Hashanah Commentary; Jewish Continuity and Renewal

Rosh Hashanah is late this year. Rosh Hashanah is early this year. In between these regular comments is the truth. Rosh Hashanah always occurs on the first day of Tishri. We can set our calendars on it.

Indeed, ever since the Jewish calendar was set centuries ago, Rosh Hashanah has been the fixed symbol of Jewish continuity and renewal. The ritual has evolved into a set theme, giving us a time to review the past and prepare for the future. Rosh Hashanah is a great statement of the way Jewish life reaffirms itself and, at the same time, launches us with confidence into the future.

On Rosh Hashanah, the shofar has been sounded for thousands of years. On Rosh Hashanah, the apples and honey remind us of our childhood. Rosh Hashanah anchors us in history and strengthens our identity.

Frederick Wilhelm, the king of Prussia, once asked his chaplain to prove the endurance of religion. “Your Majesty,” the chaplain replied, “the Jews.” He correctly saw that the Jews collectively and individually are the embodiment of a long and continuous history of ideas and experiences.

Rosh Hashanah makes us aware that deep within the consciousness of the Jews burns the awareness of a unique spiritual destiny. Our personal existence is bound up with the deeper meaning of history. We are not lonely individuals on an endless road.

Rosh Hashanah is also a time for renewal, for chesbon hanefesh, a spiritual self-examination. If anything, this one holy day emphasizes that as a group and as individuals we can change; indeed, we must change.

This year on Rosh Hashanah we will enter synagogues that range in design from the work of Percival Goodman to Frank Lloyd Wright and everything in between. We are not lonely individuals on an endless road.

Rosh Hashanah is also a time for renewal, for chesbon hanefesh, a spiritual self-examination. If anything, this one holy day emphasizes that as a group and as individuals we can change; indeed, we must change.

This year on Rosh Hashanah we will enter synagogues that range in design from the work of Percival Goodman to Frank Lloyd Wright and everything in between. We will see Torah covers that dazzle in design. Silver Torah decorations will include the contemporary designs of Wolpert, Zabari, Ofin, Greenvercel and others.

The tallitot, or prayer shawls, will reflect the work of Agan or will be tie- dyes or individual weavings. The kipot will show stunning creativity. The music will not only include the traditional nusach, or standard melodies, but the contemporary work of Janowksy, Davidson, Bernstein and even a whiff of Bob Dylan. Sermons by rabbis, both men and women, will cover every conceivable topic from intermarriage to the environment to world politics to personal problems.

These forms of renewal introduce more vigor and relevance to Rosh Hashanah. The Talmud itself notes with approval the statement: “Just as his [or her] ancestors left a place to create new forms, so I was left a place by my ancestors to create new forms.” (Hulin 7a)

At a recent meeting, the newly elected secretary of a group was asked for the minutes of the prior meeting. He arose, cleared his throat impressively and said, “The minutes of the last meeting were one hour, 20 minutes and six seconds.” Then he sat down.

Rosh Hashanah does not record the minutes of the year in simple units of time. Indeed, the more accurate assessment of a year is not the hours spent or the seconds kept, but the measure of human emotions and feelings, the joys and the tears, and hopes and the fears.

On Rosh Hashanah a person must measure himself or herself by ideas of right and wrong; of deeds done and left undone; of sin, guilt, repentance, forgiveness and amendment of life of community responsibility and irresponsibility. This is an opportunity to correct to correct our spiritual statement and balance the account of living.

Rosh Hashanah, then is the time for continuity and renewal as a human community, as Jews and as individuals. It is time to offer gratitude in the words of the classic prayer marking milestones: “For having the opportunity of life, for having sustained and for having reached a new time.”

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