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The Dialectic Truth of Rosh Hashanah

By Dina Rudolph

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues, many of us struggle with varied emotions. We are concerned, anxious, and uncertain about the future. At the same time, we are thankful for our family, friends, health, and all the blessings in our lives.

How is it possible to hold these opposing emotions simultaneously?

A suggestion is made by Rabbi Dr. Jacob J. Schacter, of Yeshiva University, and the son of Rabbi Herschel Schacter, the first Jewish chaplain to enter Buchenwald after its liberation in April 1945. Rabbi Schacter explains that we have a precedent for these dialectic emotions and approaches from Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish new year. Rosh Hashanah may be observed in many ways. Some people may go to synagogue, pray, hear the shofar, along with other practices that are particular to and associated with Rosh Hashanah. Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik explained that observance is coupled with emotion. Religious tradition is not only expressed in behavior but also in an inner emotion.

So, what is it that we need to feel and experience on Rosh Hashanah?

Rosh Hashanah is called, Yom Hadin, the Day of Judgment. “On Rosh Hashanah all human beings pass before him [God] as sheep before a shepherd” are the words of one prayer with beautifully moving imagery. The typical holiday prayer of Hallel is not recited. We recite the haunting prayer of Unetaneh Tokef, which is the apex of the afternoon service. “Who will live and who will die?” asks the prayer. These words echoed loudly this year during the height of the COVID-19 breakout in New York, when medical professionals discussed triage and literally said these words. The prayer declares that the angels are trembling! We enter this prayer in trepidation. The shofar sounds evoke great emotion and a sense of awe. We anticipate both the long and the staccato blasts, which conjure up visions of God’s all-encompassing power, as well as God’s cries or the cries of the Jewish people.

At the same time, the Jerusalem Talmud tells us that we should eat and rejoice on Rosh Hashanah. We have festive meals with family. We are not allowed to fast on Rosh Hashanah. We say, “Hayom Harat Olam,” which means the day the world was conceived. The 14th century commentator Rabbi Nissim Girondi, known as the RaN, notes that this phrase, quoted in the Babylonian Talmud, indeed intended to mean that man was created on Rosh Hashanah. The idea of commemorating the creation of man on the new year demonstrates the potential of man and the importance of what a person can do and accomplish in one’s life and what a person can contribute to the world.

Rosh Hashanah is a yom tov (literally a day of goodness) but it is also a yom hadin (day of judgment). Rabbi Schacter concludes that the dialectic of emotions that we feel about Rosh Hashanah is a paradigm for this multiplicity of seemingly mutually exclusive emotions that we are experiencing in this world at this time.

On the Jewish new year, we traditionally do not wish each other happy new year like during the secular new year. Why is this? We do not celebrate Rosh Hashanah by partying and getting drunk. Rosh Hashanah is introspective, thoughtful, and contemplative. We examine our behavior over the past year and think about the person we want to be and the world we would like to see. When we accept the Torah’s mitzvot (commandments), we also accept that there is a correct way to live. We are commanded to do what is good and right in the eyes of God, such as performing charity and acts of justice. The opportunity this holiday gives us to think about the way we want to live is a true gift and reflects the wonderful qualities of the day. It is a time of renewal and a time when we, God willing, will be forgiven.

May we be able to celebrate holidays with our families, friends, and communities in good health, and may the Jewish people and the entire world experience peace and tranquility.

K’tiva v’chatima tova – may we be written and inscribed in the Book of Life.

Dina Rudolph is the controller at JCC Association of North America.


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