As of Friday night, the evening of September 18, we've just entered the season known as the Yamim Nora'im, “The Days of Awe.” These are the first 10 days of the Hebrew calendar year, beginning with Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish new year celebration, and concluding with Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. In Jewish tradition, this period is devoted to careful examination of who we are, in an attempt to recognize ways in which we've “missed the mark.” This reflection is meant to lead us to remorse for harm we've done, to make attempts at restitution when possible, and ultimately to teshuvah — turning away from our past selves to become better versions of ourselves who will act differently in the coming year.
The roots of Rosh Hashanah, which translates to “Head of the Year,” are found in the Torah, where the day is called variously Yom Teruah — “Day of Sounding the Shofar,” or Yom Zikkaron — “Day of Remembering.” The idea that the first of the month of Tishrei represents the beginning of a new year came some time later, when rabbinic interpreters identified it as marking the anniversary of the creation of the world.
Today, observance of Rosh Hashanah typically centers around the synagogue service. The liturgy from which we read has many special additions that express themes of judgment and repentance. Additionally, we blow the shofar, a trumpet fashioned from a ram's horn, as part of a special ceremony. Three note patterns are sounded as part of this ceremony, tekiah (one long blast), shevarim (three short blasts), and teruah (nine staccato blasts). The ritual carries multiple layers of significance, but most notably it serves as a wake up call to the community, kicking off the season of reflection and repentance and rousing us to set ourselves to the difficult task at hand.
This Rosh Hashanah, of course, is significantly different from any in Jewish history. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, congregations around the world, including ours at Beit Am, are gathering virtually over online platforms to pray and be in community together. As we enter this season, I'm filled with both sadness and hope. There can be no substitute for being present in person with one's community and knowing that we are engaging together in a sacred project and an ancient ritual. This is a real loss for us, and I'm constantly reminding myself that it's OK to grieve it. And at the same time, the radical shake-up of our traditional practice is inspiring Jews everywhere to rethink their priorities and re-imagine what it means to be a kehillah kedosha, a sacred community.
You should hopefully have the impression by now that Rosh Hashanah is quite unlike other new year celebrations focused solely on exuberance and merry-making. While this is certainly true, it's still appropriate to greet Jews at this time with a hearty shanah tovah, “happy new year!” This is still, on the whole, a happy and joyous occasion. We understand the opportunity for and possibility of teshuvah to be an incredible blessing granted to us. It is the mechanism that enables us to constantly be striving for refinement of ourselves and of our world. Jews believe that it is never too late to turn in repentance and make changes to the way you walk through the world. It will be through this process, and this difficult reflective work, that we will ultimately reach our shared vision of a world free of injustice and united in love.
Rabbi Phil Bressler was ordained in June 2018 by the Rabbinical School of Hebrew College in Boston, where he also earned his MA in Jewish Studies. He serves as the rabbi of Beit Am-Mid-Willamette Valley Jewish Community, located in Corvallis.
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