Shana tova and welcome. What does the Torah have to say about Rosh Hashanah? Interestingly, not very much! All it says is the first day of the 7th month is a holy day. Work is prohibited, special offerings are to be brought to the Temple, and it’s a day of sounding, though the meaning of “sounding” is undefined. That’s all Scripture has to say about Rosh Hashanah. So all of our knowledge of the holiday and how to celebrate it comes from our Oral Tradition – The Mishnah, the Talmud, and the Midrash.
Throughout these services, I will be discussing the many meanings of Rosh Hashanah. For now, I will mention that this is the only Jewish holiday that begins on Rosh Chodesh, a new month. That means that tonight is the darkest night of the month, and the moon is only a small, small sliver. The Holy Zohar, the Jewish mystical tradition, teaches that during Rosh Hashanah, G-d actually withdraws a portion of Divine Kingship on earth because G-d wants US to elicit that. G-d wants us to say, “we want You, Lord, we want You in our lives and we want to be in a relationship with You.” That’s called crowning G-d. We, the subjects, have the crown in our hands, and it’s ours to bestow upon the king. Tonight, we pledge ourselves to be G-d’s loyal subjects. We pledge ourselves to be manifestations of divinity by living up to our potential and by being the best versions of ourselves. Some parts of us are shining, but other parts of us need some cleansing in order to shine more brightly. The goal is for all of us to glow and spread the Light of G-d by the way we carry ourselves in the world. It’s dark outside tonight because it’s OUR job to bring holy light into the world, beginning now and throughout the year to come.
That’s why scripture is largely silent and vague on what happens on this day. This holiday is not imposed on us. Every other Jewish holiday is a remembrance of something G-d did for us – saving, redeeming, protecting, providing. This is the only holiday that we define. We’re all here tonight voluntarily, of our own free will, to declare the reality of divine holiness in our lives and in the world. Since G-d withdrew a piece of G-d’s will tonight, it’s up to all of us, both together in community and as unique individuals, to fill in that void with light, love, and hope.
Tonight we enter the Days of Awe, the Yamim Nora’im, the High Holy Days. This is a season of growth, transformation, and community. Over the next month or so, we have a slew of holidays that are meant to whip us into spiritual shape for the coming year. Rosh Hashanah means the “head” or “beginning” of the year. HaShana can also mean “The change” – so “the head or beginning of the change.” For these Rosh Hashanah services, my focus will be on our heads, our brains, and to show how changing our mindset can lead to a growth experience. When we get to Yom Kippur, the focus is on atonement and the heart. Sukkot is an 8-day holiday, with each day cleansing one of our different middot or character traits and emotional intelligences. Finally, Simchat Torah moves our feet as we’ll dance together in celebration of the gift of Torah. At the end of this month-long whirlwind, we will have renewed our entire body and spirit and be ready for whatever comes our way in the year ahead. As Summer turns to Winter, and long days turn into short ones, we are preparing ourselves for whatever darkness may lie ahead in our lives.
Rosh Hashanah is the birthday of the world. Throughout the liturgy we’ll see the refrain, “hayom harat olam”, meaning, “today the world was created.” I want to take a moment to go back to the original story of Creation because it sheds light on what Rosh Hashanah is all about.
We all know the 6-day story of Creation. At the end of each day, G-d said, “va’yaar Elohim ki tov”, “And G-d saw that it was good.” There’s a midrash, a post-biblical source, that explains why G-d decided to say that it was good. According to this midrash, there were some 492 iterations or versions of this world prior to its creation, none of which could be called, “good,” but each time getting closer and closer to G-d’s ideal universe. After every world that G-d created, it had to be trashed for one reason or another. After all of these unsuccessful attempts, G-d created the world that we know today and said it was “good.”
The meaning of this midrash is that mistakes are part of the blueprint of G-d’s creation, of this universe. In order for G-d to “get it right”, G-d had to get it wrong 492 times, each time getting progressively better. This midrash proves that making mistakes can actually be a fruitful, creative endeavor, as long as we learn from them and do better the next time around.
Think of a baby learning to walk. It takes a baby months of trial and error, small failures and tiny successes, before that baby can figure out how to go from sitting to standing, how to balance, and how to take a step forward. Only then can that baby let go of the table or chair and walk independently toward their parent. But all through the months of learning and experimenting, the baby has an inner drive to walk, and so too do we have an inner drive to get closer to G-d. Your being here today proves that. Rosh Hashanah is our opportunity to cultivate the divine within ourselves so that we can walk toward G-d.
So, rather than wallowing in anger or self-pity when our first attempts don’t succeed, our tradition provides a roadmap for correction and growth.
In the 12th Century, Maimonides, or Rambam, laid out a path toward repentance that has been used by Jews during these 10 Days of Repentance ever since. Many people misunderstand the concept of sin, thinking that someone who sins is a “bad person.” Actually, the Hebrew word chet does not mean sin at all. Chet appears in the Bible in reference to a slingshot which “missed the target.” There is nothing inherently “bad” about that slingshot! Rather, a mistake was made ― due to a lack of focus, concentration or skill.
The same is true with us. When we engage in irresponsible or destructive behavior, we have simply misfired. According to classical Jewish belief, every human being has a soul, a pure piece of Godliness that distinguishes us from the animals. When we do something wrong, it is because the soul’s “voice” has become temporarily muted by the roar of our physical bodies. But our essence remains pure. We only need to make a few adjustments ― and we’re back on target!
This is the idea of teshuva, or repentance. Teshuva literally means “return.” We perform teshuvah to return to our own previous state of spiritual purity. The process of teshuva involves the following four steps: First, we must realize the extent of the damage we’ve done to ourselves or to others and feel sincere regret. This first step of teshuva is indeed the most crucial ― because unless a person feels regret, they will most likely continue in their misguided ways. How should we feel upon recognizing a mistake we’re making? Should we feel guilty, worthless and bad? No! “Guilt” is a negative emotion saying that “I am bad,” whereas “regret” is a more positive acknowledgement that while my essence remains pure, I have failed to live up to my potential.
Second, we must immediately stop the harmful action. Third, we must articulate the mistake and ask forgiveness from those we’ve wronged – be it ourselves, family, friends, or strangers. Usually when we apologize to someone, we’re thinking about our past relationship; but embedded in every apology is a hope and a desire for an improved future. The final step in Maimonides’ Laws of Teshuvah is to make a firm commitment not to repeat your mistake if the same situation arises again in the future.
We don’t need to have all the answers right now. The key is the commitment to change, being aware of situations in which we’re likely to stumble, and keeping a safe distance from them. The Torah teaches us: Strengthen your resolve in a certain area and God will ensure your success. And the Talmud says, “In the way that a person wants to go, he will be led.”
Tonight kicks off a period of reflection and inspiration. How we can make the coming year better for ourselves and for those around us? The work must begin within each of us, in our own quiet reflections.
To conclude, I’d like to take us back to the story of Creation. During the 6 Days, G-d always ends the day by saying, “va’yaar Elohim ki tov” – And G-d saw that it was good. In the story of Creation, only once did G-d say that it wasn’t good. “lo tov lehiot adam levado” It wasn’t good for Adam to be alone, so G-d created Eve.
One of the things we can learn from this is that there are two ways to look at your life, the world, and other people, tov and lo tov, good and not good. You can be the kind of person who only sees good in the world. And while that sounds wonderful, the truth of the matter is that nothing and no one is perfect. So if you’re only seeing what’s good, you won’t see what can be better, and the role you might have in making it better.
Then there’s another way to look at the world. To see what’s not good, that everyone and everything is “lo tov,” not good. But that’s not such a great way to look at the world, either, because it will leave you feeling angry or depressed. You won’t see that change for the better is possible or recognize that you can help fix it.
And it hit me that for Rosh Hashanah, as I think about mistakes being in the blueprint of creation, there’s a third way to look at things. And that’s to look at the world and everyone in it as manifestations and reflections of divinity, and to think about the infinite potential that everyone and everything possesses.
Today marks bereshit, a new beginning! When G-d saw Adam alone in Eden and said it “wasn’t good,” that was a preparation to create Eve, because having Eve in the world would make it a better place. So we can look at what’s not good, but we don’t have to see it as “lo tov.” Rather, we can see it as “not quite yet tov.” And if we can look at everything that’s not good, to see it as an opportunity or potential to become good…imagine the possibilities! As we go through these Days of Awe, let’s think about all the exciting opportunities for renewal and growth, both for ourselves and the world around us, as we look, hope, and dream into the coming year.