New Year 5770

A Period of Introspection

Elul 29, 5769, 18 September 09

by Rabbi Dr. Shlomo Riskin, Arutz Sheva

( "This day, the world was conceived…." (from the Rosh HaShanah liturgy)

We are approaching the formidable "festival" period, which will last for more than three weeks beginning with Rosh HaShanah, the anniversary of the creation of the world, continuing with Yom Kippur, the Day of Forgiveness and Purity, and concluding with the glorious eight days of Sukkot and joyous Simchat Torah, when we dance with the Torah scrolls.

On each of the festivals, we read a Biblical passage that relates to the meaning of the day, so it’s strange that on Rosh HaShanah we read stories from the early experiences of the first Jewish family, Abraham, Sarah, and the two boys Ishmael and Isaac. Rosh HaShanah is the anniversary of the creation of the world, which makes it a natural time to read the majestic opening passage of the Torah, "In the beginning G-d created the heavens and the earth." Given that, in any case, we are now concluding the annual cycle of the reading of the Torah, wouldn’t it make sense to start the year by recommencing the cycle of Torah readings from the beginning of Genesis?

But that is not the only strange thing about our festive season. In the middle of our holiday period is the Yom Kippur fast, replete with the exhortation to "afflict our souls". And then, after this day of affliction, we rush to erect a seven-day virtually make-believe home, exquisitely decorated with fragrant vegetation, a green garden roof, and wall hangings of Biblical personalities and Holy Temple scenes. What single idea connects these disparate sacred days?

I believe that the unifying scheme for the festival month of Tishrei will emerge when we contemplate the natural human reaction to New Year’s Day. Amidst all the festivities, it’s a time when we nostalgically remember those who were with us last year, but are no longer. The older we are, the more conscious we are of our mortality.

There are two contrasting approaches to human mortality. The Greco-Roman way was to cry out, "Eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die." It’s a hedonistic approach to the world, living for the moment and disregarding the consequences. Judaism took a different approach. While declaring Rosh HaShanah a Yom Tov on which we wear our best clothes and enjoy sumptuous meals together with our families, the rabbis saw that there was also a more somber message. "Repent one day before you die," they said. Since none of us knows exactly when we will pass away, our sages felt that we should always take stock of our actions and repent for our misdeeds.

The Jewish New Year ushers in a period of repentance, introspection and reexamining of priorities. So while we may not know how long we will live, we can choose how best to spend the time we have. Only that which is finite and susceptible to decay and disappearance is truly valued and appreciated. Our mortality reminds us how precious every day of life really is and the importance of making the most out of whatever time we have. The objects that we acquire in life are as vulnerable and temporal as we are, but the fruits of our loins, the next generation, has the potential to carry us along into the future towards eternity.

Perhaps that is why on Rosh HaShanah the Biblical readings focus on the first family of the people of Israel – Abraham, Sarah and Isaac – recording their tests and their triumphs, their satisfactions and their sacrifices, their rivalries and their victories.

For most of us "the world" centers on our own family; for Jews this includes our identity as members of the family of Israel, with its heroes, mediocrities and villains.

Despite the fast, Yom Kippur – the Day of Atonement and Divine Forgiveness – is considered a major festival. Dressed in simple white garb, deprived of food, drink and sexual relations, and ensconced for the entire day in the synagogue with prayer book, Bible and G-d, it is almost as if we have moved from the temporal world of the living to the eternal world of the Divine spirit.

Yom Kippur is the day on which we are given the Divine gift of a fresh slate. Our day of atonement fortifies us with a sense of total renewal, together with the empowerment and self-confidence which comes at the end of the fast, realizing that we can rise above our usual physical needs and instinctive drives. We can change our priorities and, in the process, even recreate ourselves.

Contemplating our mortality and reexamining our lives can be frightening – but it can also be uplifting and edifying.

I know an important Jewish leader and philanthropist who lived a carefree, rich, playboy existence. Out skiing one day, he got caught in a terrible storm. Stranded and alone on a mountaintop, he was convinced that death was imminent. Strangely enough, he felt no fear and made no bargains with G-d. Instead, his thoughts turned to the question of who would mourn his passing. Reflecting on all his business associates and professional acquaintances, he realized that actually his mother would be the only true mourner; and since she would have grieved even if he had been stillborn, it was as though he had never lived at all.

Miraculously, he survived the ordeal, but his harrowing brush with death and the powerful reflections on the mountaintop led him to make enormous changes to his lifestyle. As a rabbi, I have visited many terminally ill patients; none of them regretted time not spent in the office, but almost all regretted time not spent with family or on behalf of community. My friend was fortunate to learn these lessons whilst still young and healthy. From then on, he made sure that he devoted plenty of time to his family and to worthy causes which needed his help.

The climax of our festival season takes place when we leave our generally comfortable houses, taking up residence in small, fragile huts. Perhaps the message of these "halakhic homes" is that the goal of Israel is not to be bigger and better than others, but rather to be wiser and holier. The real strength and security of a home comes from our time-honored traditions and our eternal values. "One thing do I ask of the Lord, only this do I request: allow me to dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to see the sweetness of the Lord and to visit in His tent."

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