Who doesn’t need a second chance? Each of us has something we wish we could do over, start fresh or finish differently. Don’t you? Well, Rosh HaShanah is your opportunity. At its core, Rosh HaShanah promises us that we can transcend the past and get that second chance that each of us needs in at least some part of our lives.
In fact, Rosh HaShanah is based not only on the availability of second chances, but also on the radical claim that each of us deserves a second chance, even if it’s our hundredth one! There is no limit on second chances, and no sense that having had one in the past, one can no longer have another in the future.
Additionally, Rosh HaShanah offers an important alternative to the dominant culture’s common responses to past events we wish we could have handled differently or seen to a better conclusion. Rather than naively wishing the past away, as many new age gurus would have us do, or holding onto to stubborn self-righteousness which sees change as a sign of weakness, as so many others would have us do, Rosh HaShanah celebrates the possibility of endless second chances without pretense regarding the past.
Both things, and people, can change and still remain the same. Disruption and continuity are not diametrically opposed, but two parts of a larger whole, whether in nature or in our lives.
Think about the moon — the central symbol of the entire Jewish calendar, and whose appearance signals the blowing of the Shofar on Rosh HaShanah, according to Leviticus 23:24, Numbers 29:1 and most explicitly Psalms 84:1, which states that we “blow the Shofar at the moon’s renewal, at the appointed time for our festive day.”
The “old” moon, which defined the previous month, vanishes, and a “new” moon appears. But is it really a new moon, or is it the same moon? The answer is yes.
In fact, during the time of the Mishna and Talmud, when people already fully understood that the new moon was not a new physical entity, the Sages were so enamored of this notion of newness connected to the moon’s appearance, that they used language of pregnancy and delivery when describing whether a year has 12 months or 13, whether the new moon was actually seen by witnesses or not, etc.
And even in contemporary English, we still speak of seeing a new moon each month. What’s going on? And why is this sense of the old thing being experienced as fresh, new, and even reborn, so especially connected to Rosh HaShanah?
What’s true for the moon is true for us, and celebrating that fact is fundamental to experiencing Rosh HaShanah in all of its potential beauty and meaning. Just as the “old” moon gets a seemingly limitless number of second chances to be celebrated as a “new” moon, we too get limitless second chances and celebrate that fact on Rosh Hashanah.
We can all add a new page in the book of our lives — one which like the addition of a new page in any book, neither erases or undoes what came before it, but one which can transcend those earlier pages and the stories they contain. Each of us gets a second chance — a chance to return to the person we most want to be and a chance to live the life we most deeply desire. That’s what teshuvah means, literally.
As you celebrate Rosh HaShanah this year, consider the following questions and let them help you to write the next page in your own story.
Think about where you most need a second chance in your life. What are you willing to do in order to make it happen and to take full advantage of it? While second chances are our right, it is our responsibility to make the most of them.
Now ask yourself which person you wish would give you a second chance. How can you begin to let them know that you desire that chance, and are ready to use it well?
And since it is pretty much always wise to share with others the gifts that we receive, consider to whom you might offer a second chance, and how you will make the offer. Don’t worry if they haven’t asked. Be like Rosh HaShanah itself, offering the opportunity for another shot at doing better, even before it has been requested.
This Rosh Hashanah, give yourself the second chances to which you are entitled, and do the same for others also. Find out how much there is to celebrate about a second chance, and experience the full power of a cycle as old as the moon and as rich as the ancient tradition of Rosh HaShanah itself.
Rabbi Brad Hirschfield is President of Clal – The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, and author of “You Don’t Have To Be Wrong For Me To Be Right: Finding Faith Without Fanaticism.”