Rosh Hashana does not mean ‘new’ year, it means ‘head’ of the year. The head is the part of the body that guides and directs the whole.
So too, Rosh Hashana has the potential to guide the rest of our year. The person we choose to be on Rosh Hashana will define the type of year we will have. When firing a rocket to the moon, getting the launch right will decide whether or not it will get there 250,000 miles later on. So too, our state of mind on Rosh Hashana has the potential to direct our focus for the entire year ahead.
And the great thing about Rosh Hashana is that it’s not too difficult. The Rabbis tell us that God draws near on Rosh Hashana. His presence is more palpable to us. He does all of the hard work, so to speak; we just have to do a teeny weenie bit more – and then reap all of the rewards.
The judgment of Rosh Hashana is not based on the past year. God isn’t interested in who we’ve been, He’s much more interested in who we are going to be. And on Rosh Hashana, the possibilities are wide open. On Rosh Hashana, we can choose to be anything we want to be. We’re breathing in change and the human soul knows it.
So my first suggestion is to simply take advantage of the prayer service. The Rabbis have constructed an amidah (silent prayer) to raise our sights; to lift us out of the pettiness of our day to day lives and consider the world as a whole and how it should (and could) be. We ask for a world of Godliness, of love, of peace, of harmony – for all of humanity and ultimately for God Himself. It’s an opportunity to make ourselves into bigger people, not small people who are caught up in lives that don’t extend much beyond our noses. The Rosh Hashanah amidah is one of the great accomplishments of Jewish literature. If you struggle with the Hebrew or with the direct English translation, I suggest you use the conceptual translation I have written. If you don’t have the one I’ve sent in previous years, please be in touch and I will send you one.
My other suggestion is at the same time easier and harder. As the Rabbis explain, God comes closer on Rosh Hashana. So how about taking some time out during the day to simply feel His presence? Close your eyes and let Him in. Allow yourself to be lifted to a different plane of consciousness and see how different the world looks from there. And shift the direction of your life accordingly. I would in particular suggest this during the shofar blowing. The shofar’s call penetrates deep into the human soul. It calls the soul out from its hiding place and awakens it to a more truthful place. Any time on Rosh Hashana is ripe for a spiritual reawakening, but no time more so than at the sounding of the Shofar.
There is no day in the Jewish year on which God’s presence is closer and more palpable than Yom Kippur. It is the spiritual highlight of the year; the day when the Jewish soul reconciles itself with its Creator; a chance for a fresh start. Whereas Rosh Hashana is an opportunity to see the world differently, Yom Kippur is an opportunity for the difference to take form. Rosh Hashana is cleaning the lenses so you can see straight; Yom Kippur is rebooting the hard drive.
Fasting is not an act of penance; it is an act of transcendence. It is about moving away from the distractions of the physical world and realising that spiritual sustenance is so much more satisfying. On Yom Kippur, the day that God comes so close that we can reach out and touch Him, we don’t want to be concerned with what we are having for lunch.
I want to give just one thought on how to make the day more meaningful.
In the Yom Kippur prayers we repeat the vidduy – confession – over and over and over again. We stand before God and confess to Him the mistakes we have made. Saying sorry is an experience of humility; of doing what’s right; of reconciliation. Saying sorry is so satisfying that it’s a wonder we don’t do it more often. On Yom Kippur we are saying sorry to God, but much more so than that, we are saying sorry to ourselves. Life is so full of opportunity. There is so much to accomplish, so much good we can do, so much we can contribute to the world around us. And yet we manage to fritter our time away doing things of little lasting value. Yom Kippur is about realising this.
So here’s the practical suggestion. We all have things we’ve done this year that we wish we hadn’t and things we haven’t done that we wish we had. We all have areas we wish we were doing better in – it might be giving more to our spouses, spending more time with our kids, spending less time at work, shouting less…… whatever it may be. Spend half an hour making a list before Yom Kippur. Write it down and take it to Shul with you. When it comes to the confession, take out your list and say your own personal confession – not from a place of guilt and frustration, but from a place of honestly wishing you were able to do better. God’s cleared his busy diary for 25 hours. Take the time to talk to Him and tell Him how much you wish you could be different. God always responds to sincerity and if you can offer that, you need come with nothing else.
Succos has two very distinct mitzvos (commandments) associated with it and their aim is to guide us towards joy, which is the theme of the holiday.
Firstly, we take four plants: a lulav (date palm branch), an esrog (citron), aravot (willow branches) and hadasim (myrtle branches). Willow wood is great for building and represents the raw materials of our world – woods, stones, metals etc. The myrtle is not a strong wood, but has a lovely smell. It represents luxurious raw materials which make life so much more pleasant – precious metals, precious stones etc. Dates represent the basic elements that provide our sustenance – water, air, food, warmth, light etc. And finally, the citron, with taste and smell, represents those elements that provide sustenance and pleasure at the same time – tasty food and drink, luxurious houses, fine clothes. We take these four elements and shake them north, east, south, west, up and down. We are saying – look at the abundance of our world; whichever way we turn it is full of everything that we need to survive, thrive and find fulfilment. We do this every day of Succos to remind ourselves just how much this world is overflowing with blessing.
The second command, a succah, must be a temporary structure. Its walls must be strong enough to withstand the wind, but its roof must allow the rain and other elements in and the stars must be visible through it. The succah is something of a contradiction. Strong walls, flimsy roof. With these laws in mind, let’s consider its message.
Who knows what this world has to offer from one day to the next? Life is all too fickle. Bernie Madoff has demonstrated that wealth can disappear in a moment. Health is so fragile. Even friends and family are here one day and gone the next. Who knows what tomorrow will bring? When we rely on this transitory world for some sort of stability, it’s hard to feel secure – in fact, it’s impossible.
But if we are able to rely on God then the world looks very different.
On Succos, we leave the false security of our home and live in a rickety shed. There is little protection against the elements. The walls may be strong, but the roof is a different story. So when the weather is bad, we are not drawn to the walls, rather to the roof. We gaze upwards towards the roof and see beyond it to the stars and towards God. The succah reminds us that material things provide no security. Billionaires died in the holocaust just like everyone else. Our security lies only in God. When sitting in the succah, we cannot help but be reminded that our future is totally dependent on God. And when our future depends solely on God, it feels secure.
If you can get the four species and sit in a succah this Succos, try to focus on these ideas as you do so and see how they move you towards a more joyful experience of life.