Rosh Hashana is the Day of Judgment in Jewish tradition. As the Rabbis say, ‘every human being passes before God like sheep before a shepherd’. There is a common misconception, however, as to what exactly we are judged on at Rosh Hashana.
People often believe that the judgment is on the past year – transgressions vs good deeds. Add it all up, subtract one from the other and bingo. Positive territory means a good new year. Negative territory means you are in the soup!
That’s not the way Judaism sees it. And obviously so. For if the judgment was on what had happened last year, then what purpose would Rosh Hashana itself serve? We might as well eat drink and be merry because the deeds are done and, for better or for worse, there is no going back.
But this is not Rosh Hashana and not Judaism. Judaism always believes that what matters more than where a person has been, is where a person is going. Much more so than we are products of our past, we are products of our future. Consider for a moment, who is more likely to treat his wife properly over the coming year: the husband who has been unkind and unpleasant, but sincerely wants to change and genuinely means it; or the husband who has been a good husband – but just doesn’t see the point anymore? Which employee is more likely to perform better next year – the one who has done well this year but lost their motivation, or the one who has struggled, but has found new enthusiasm and commitment and has a strong feeling and vision for the future? The smart money would go on the second. Of course, best of all is the one who performed well and still has motivation and vision to do so, but the more critical component is where the person is right now, not where they have been in the past.
The Rabbis tell us that on Rosh Hashana, we are not judged on our past, we are judged on our future. What do we dream of? Do we dream of greatness, of caring and giving more, of closeness to God? Or do we dream of bigger houses, better jobs and larger salaries? Or have we lost our connection to life and we don’t dream at all?
That’s the beauty of Rosh Hashana and of Judaism. It doesn’t matter who you have been or how you have lived your life, there’s always the possibility to start anew. ‘Hashana’ means ‘the year’, but ‘Rosh’ does not mean ‘new’. ‘Rosh’ means ‘head’; so Rosh Hashana is the ‘head of the year’. Because the head looks forward and cannot look back. The body can turn around but the head cannot look backwards. Similarly, Rosh Hashana is only about looking forward.
Almost exactly sixty years ago, Martin Luther King stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and said, ‘I have a dream that one day my four little children live in a nation where they will not be judged by the colour of their skin but by the content of their character.’ Black Americans have so much more freedom and opportunity today because Martin Luther King and millions of others along with him dreamed that it could be so, that it would be so. When we lose our vision, and it’s easy to do, we human beings get bogged down in the quagmire of our past. Rosh Hashana is about finding new and inspired vision for ourselves.
Take time out this Rosh Hashana. Dream of a better life. Dream of being a better person, a better spouse, a better parent, a better friend, a better inhabitant of God’s world. If you dream it on Rosh Hashana, you might just spend the other 363 days of the year making it come true.
Shabbat Shalom and Shana Tova,
Rabbi Shaul Rosenblatt