Brave New Year

Rosh Hashanah 5781

by Meir Sendor

We’re about to go into a three-week lockdown here in Israel, taking us from Rosh HaShanah through Sukkot. Several sectors of society are complaining, but we have brought this on ourselves. Some of those complaining most are the very ones whose unwillingness to adapt to reasonable health guidelines have exacerbated this serious health crisis for us all, necessitating this more drastic step. On one hand it’s unfortunate that the lockdown is occurring over the holy days, in normal years a time of joyful gathering with family and friends and community. But on the level of spirit, it might possible to see the conditions of lockdown as not so antithetical to the soul work we all need to do in this holy season.

The period from Rosh HaShanah through the end of Sukkot is understood as a time of spiritual renewal as well as of divine judgment. On the face of it this would seem like an odd pairing, but only because we tend to regard judgment as perilous and punitive and not so conducive to refreshment and renewal. Some of the traditional anxiety of this time may be influenced by how we react to the judgment of Rosh HaShanah as portrayed in midrash and in the Mahzor, as a heavenly court case in which our lives hang in the balance. If we view a heavenly court based on our experience with human legal bureaucracies, well no wonder we’re anxious – especially in this crisis period, in which it’s painfully clear that life and health and livelihood are precarious. But our tradition is speaking of a heavenly court, a process of truth and justice presided over by God, our loving, merciful Father, Who cares endlessly about each one of us, as the Sefat Emet reminds us. The court case is a poetic image for a more integral process. On Rosh HaShanah, Yom haZikkaron, the Day of Remembrance, judgment on the spiritual plane means we realize we stand totally transparent to God the Infinite, Ein Sof, Who knows the disparity between our full, ideal potential and the diminished selves we’ve become. The judgment is the disparity itself. That we are so disappointing to God, so to speak, should prompt deep and responsible soul-searching in us, and that’s what the midrashic theme is trying to provoke.  But the aim of this spiritual judgment is constructive, to help us identify aspects of our lives, attitudes and conduct that require fixing, including the harmful mistakes we have made, to help us to improve towards our true, full potential.

This work is personal and introspective, though in normal years the climax of this private process is enacted in a communal context. Praying together through the elaborate, complex services of Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur, we are encouraged by the atmosphere of collective urgency to work on our own issues. We try to fit the specifics of our mistakes and bad habits of thought, word and action into the standardized liturgical confessions, usually recited at a clip. We use the prayers to probe more deeply into our character, but we’re also carried along by the pacing and momentum of the public performance, the hazzanut, the singing, the recitations mumbled in unison. At the end of the service we assume and we hope that we’ve accomplished Tshuvah, more or less, good enough, and move on.

How is this year different from all other years? This year many of us will be praying at home, or in small groups, without the pomp and circumstance, without the momentum of public performance, without the communal pacing to carry us along. We will have to move ourselves, word by word, prayer by prayer, shofar blast by shofar blast, through the tefillot. This might seem daunting. But it’s an opportunity to really pray with honesty and sincerity, with focused kavanah and meaning, to really talk to God on our own, in our own way.  All the traditional tools and resources are fully available to us, for each of us to approach God in a personalized way. Rabbi Pinchas of Koretz explains:

On Rosh HaShanah there are multiple approaches…There are songs and praises, such as “You are our God…” There are prayers, some of which arouse weeping and other emotions as organized in the Mahzor. The Torah is also read. For the Holy One, blessed be He, is hidden from us, as it says “on the concealed day of our festival (Ps. 81:4).” Therefore we seek and go around [wondering] how to find the Holy One, blessed be He, and in what quality He is hidden, until we find Him. And each and every person can see Him according to their unique aspect, one through weeping, and one through prayer, and one through praises. Therefore in the poetic liturgy there are many types of praises and prayers, in the light of the Face of the Living King (Imrei Pinchas, Rosh HaShanah, sec. 466).

The elaborate and complex service of Rosh HaShanah is designed to provide multiple means for individualized, personalized access to God, each of us in our own way.

This unusual Rosh HaShanah in this unusual time will be a challenge and an opportunity. The self-reliance and courage to step up on our own that will be required of each of us is good for our spiritual growth, and actually in the spirit of the day, as it says in the Gemara Rosh HaShanah:

תלמוד בבלי מסכת ראש השנה דף יח עמוד א

בראש השנה כל באי העולם עוברין לפניו כבני מרון. מאי כבני מרון? הכא תרגימו כבני אמרנא. ריש לקיש אמר: כמעלות בית מרון. (אמר) רב יהודה אמר שמואל: כחיילות של בית דוד. אמר רבה בר בר חנה אמר רבי יוחנן: וכולן נסקרין בסקירה אחת.


On Rosh HaShanah all people of the world pass before Him like bnei Maron. What are “bnei maron?” Here it is translated in Aramaic as “like sheep [passing through the gate of the pen].” Resh Lakish said “like the [narrow] steps of the [steep] valley of Maron. Rav Yehudah said that Shmuel said: “like the [review of the] soldiers of the House of King David.” Rabbah bar bar Hannah said that Rabbi Yochanan said “and they are all scanned in one glance.”

Rashi explains that all the rabbis here agree that the essential image is that on Rosh HaShanah all people of the world are presented before God in single file, one by one. Each of us has personal, individual Face time with God. This year we have the opportunity to really realize this. The Gemara goes on to say that even though each person is unique, and God examines each of us individually, yet He accomplishes this all at once, as it says in Tehillim:

תלמוד בבלי מסכת ראש השנה דף יח עמוד א

היצר יחד לבם המבין אל כל מעשיהם.

He forms their hearts as one, He understands [the consequences of] all their actions.

Even though each one of us, on Rosh HaShanah, stands in our unique personhood separately and individually in personal relationship with God, even so, we are all in this together and can feel a sense of solidarity. Even praying on our own, at a distance from each other, we can have in our hearts the welfare of all of us, especially the welfare of those struggling with illness and livelihood and loneliness. May we each and all do the real work of Rosh HaShanah, to bring blessings of health and peace and security and fulfillment to all human beings of this struggling world, for a brave New Year.


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