Let’s begin with the name. Why not call this seminal holiday “Tehilat Hashana” (Beginning of the Year) or “Shana Hadasha” (New Year, as it’s colloquially known in English) instead of “Rosh Hashana” (Head of the Year)? My rabbi simply but eloquently explained: “This is a time of the year to use your head, to think. Think back about what you have done for the past 12 months; your failures, your accomplishments, the plans and promises you so confidently proposed, and whether you made good on them. Then think ahead to this coming year: What will you do with that supremely precious gift of time, if the Almighty sees fit to ‘extend your lease’?” So, as Rosh Hashana fast approaches, I think about not only where I will be praying, did I get an aisle seat, where will I be eating, etc., but also the bigger picture of my life, where it has been and where it is going. My rabbi’s words still ring in my ears, as does, I must admit, Aretha Franklin’s hit song “Think” of The Blues Brothers fame. So let us put our heads together and think for a moment about something serious and significant.
The rabbis who edited the High Holy Day mahzor had an abundance of Torah portions to choose from as part of the service. They decided to include four famous stories: the birth of a child to aged parents Abraham and Sarah; the akeda, or binding of Isaac; the miraculous birth of Samuel to Hannah; and the whale of a tale of Jonah’s mission to ancient Nineveh.
What connects these seemingly disparate episodes? I suggest that each narrative, in its own way, is meant to hammer home to us the power of human potential. In the first story, Abraham and Sarah are confronted by the reality that they are approaching the century mark, and have not as yet together brought a child into the world.
Abraham has indeed fathered Ishmael – and loves him – but senses that he is yet to produce a rightful heir to his monotheistic legacy. Sarah, for her part, still retains an exquisite beauty but is not content being a “trophy wife”; as a great prophetess, she knows innately that she must reproduce.
The two of them ceaselessly petition God for a child, their prayers are finally answered and they reach full potential.
Hannah, too, is nagged by her unfilled need and desire to create new life. Her husband valiantly tries to assuage her pain – “Am I not better to you than 10 children?” he pleads with her – but she will have none of it. She acts with bold determination – here we have a true and noble feminism at work – when she breaks with protocol and comes to the sanctuary to fervently enunciate her plea. Eli, the high priest, thinks the elderly lady is either drunk or deranged, but she is neither; she is a Mrs. with a Mission, and she will not be denied. Her prayer is not only sincere but stunning in its selflessness; she will present her child to that very same Eli, and Samuel will part from her to serve the entire Jewish nation, becoming a circuit-riding prophet whose spiritual connection to God is second only to Moses.
The akeda is the supreme test of faith: How far will one go to show allegiance to the Creator? We can discuss the merits of this dramatic incident forever and ever, without coming to any solid conclusions. Was God truly prepared to take Isaac’s life? Would Abraham have gone through with the killing, had the angel not stopped him? Is this event a repudiation of child sacrifice or a concession to it? It is precisely because those questions remain unanswered that the akeda retains its mystery and mystique throughout the generations. But what surely is clear, and what Abraham demonstrates for eternity, is that a human being has the ability and potential to push himself to the limit, to “go the distance” in devotion to a holy cause.
Jonah has been called a failed prophet; his story certainly is problematic and filled with ambiguity. Why does he run away, seeking to shirk his mission? Why does he submit to the storm circling about him, agreeing to be thrown into the ocean to a seemingly certain death? Is he a coward, afraid or unwilling to use the gifts God has instilled in him to prod his people to penitence? Or is he actually courageous, prepared to end his own life rather than be an instrument of Israel’s demise when they – unlike Nineveh – will refuse to reform and change their sinful ways? I see a profound humanity in Jonah, who must go through a grueling trial by tempest until he finally learns that redemption is never impossible; that the potential for salvation is always there, if only we have the guts and the gumption to pursue it. At the bottom of the sea – in essence a giant, God-built mikve – Jonah is “born again” and spit out from that underwater uterus to continue the task he was created to perform.
Whether he succeeds is almost incidental; what matters is that he is again willing to try.
The story is told of a store owner who receives a call one day. “I’m looking for a job as a stock boy,” says the caller.
“Sorry,” says the owner, “I already have a stock boy.”
“But I’m very good,” says the caller, “honest, dependable, efficient, energetic.”
“So is my stock boy,” says the owner.
“But I’m sure I can be even better,” says the caller.
Now a little exasperated, the owner says, “Look, I told you that my stock boy is excellent; I would not think of replacing him. And hey, who is this, anyway?” The voice at the other end of the phone replies: “This is your stock boy. I just wanted to check on how I was doing.”
Rosh Hashana is the ultimate time to think, to check our progress and check in with the Almighty to see how we are doing. It is the perfect time to “dig deep” into our souls and come to grips with this amazing potential each of us has to accomplish great things, to dream big dreams and actually bring them into reality.
Isn’t that what the Jewish people and, right in front of our eyes, the spectacular State of Israel have done with an unparalleled success? Haven’t we shrugged off the negative predictions of our demise and the narrow-minded naysayers, and turned swamps into sprawling cities and potential into Paradise? The shofar is a clarion call that reminds us of Abraham, of the akeda, and of our ability to become a Sarah, a Samuel, or just a better person who can make a positive difference in the world around us. Don’t let the opportunity for greatness slip away as we “head” into what will hopefully be the greatest year of all.
Shana Tova to all. ■ The writer is director of the Jewish Outreach Center of Ra’anana; [email protected]