Rosh HaShanah not only marks the turn of the Jewish calendar year from 5770 to 5771, it also celebrates the fundamental human need for liberation, return and renewal.
The Jewish holidays, especially Rosh HaShanah, are not only for Jews. In fact, they celebrate the most basic human quest — the quest to make our lives richer, happier and more productive. They also invite us to think about how to help others achieve the same things.
Without ignoring the centrality of our own happiness and fulfillment, these holidays, especially Rosh HaShanah, remind us that we humans share a common past, present and future — that we, in the widest sense, are in this together.
Leviticus 23:24 speaks of the best-known Rosh HaShanah practice, the blowing of the shofar, ram’s horn, which has come to symbolize the holiday itself. The verse commands Moses as follows: “Speak to the Israelite people thus — In the seventh month, on the first day of the month, you shall observe complete rest, a sacred occasion commemorated with loud (horn) blasts.”
While that is how the verse is generally translated, taken literally, it teaches us that the Israelites are to have a sacred day marked by “the memory of loud (horn) blasts.” But what horn blasts are to be recalled? While the verse offers no direct answer, it seems to refer to the loud blasts that were sounded, according to Leviticus 25:8, at the beginning of the biblical Jubilee which occurred every 50 years.
During the Jubilee year, as the shofar was blown, the Bible teaches that the ancient Israelites were to “proclaim liberty throughout the land.” This meant that slaves were freed, debts forgiven and that lands were redistributed according to the original map at the time the Israelites entered the land. Whatever inequities had built up over the preceding 49 years, this system was intended to address them and, in the words of Leviticus 25:13, allow each person to return “to their holding” — to what was most deeply their own.
Rosh HaShanah invites us to do the same thing — to be free to return to our holding, to what we feel is most deeply our own, to be the person we most deeply feel we ought to be, not the one we may have become due to the inevitable complexities of life. Rosh HaShanah reminds us of the person we really are, and that if we stop long enough to remember who that person is, and to get reacquainted with that person, we can be that person. In fact, it is our destiny to be so, no matter what others may say or how often life seems to get in the way.
In case you are wondering who is deemed worthy of this right, the answer is all of us. In fact, that is why the Jewish New Year is celebrated on the first day of what the Bible calls “the seventh month.” After all, there has to be some reason for a people to celebrate New Year’s not on the first day of the first month, but on the first day of seventh, right? And indeed there is.
Rosh HaShanah celebrates the birth of humanity. It may do so on the Jewish calendar, but it celebrates more than Jews and Judaism. The Jewish people were born during what the Bible calls the first month, Nissan, when they left Egypt at Passover. Adam and Eve however, were born according to rabbinic tradition, during what the Bible calls the seventh month, Tishrei. And it is on the first day of that seventh month when Rosh HaShanah, the return to who we most yearn to be — deserve to be, —is celebrated. In effect, Rosh HaShanah affords each of us the opportunity to become Adam or Eve, to go back to the beginning and start fresh.
So this Rosh HaShanah, and throughout the Ten Days of Repentance, whoever you are, and wherever you may be, take advantage of one ancient tradition’s ideas and practices to relocate the person you most want to be and enjoy the renewal and liberation that come from finding that person once again.
Rabbi Brad Hirschfield is the president of Clal-The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, and the author of “You Don’t Have to Be Wrong for Me to Be Right: Finding Faith Without Fanaticism.”