A good year

Rabbi blowing shofar 520 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Rabbi blowing shofar 520
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
I am always struck by the contrast between Rosh Hashana in Israel and in the Diaspora. In the Diaspora, together with Yom Kippur, it is one of the three most important days of the year for Jews. Jews who do not otherwise attend the synagogue will absent themselves from work and school to show up on Rosh Hashana. Synagogues expand and extra services are held. In Israel, on the other hand, where the chasm between secular and religious is so wide and so blatant, the holiday is seen as much less important than Pessah, Succot, Hanukka or even Purim for the majority of the population.
Indeed, Rosh Hashana is the most problematic Jewish holiday for secular Jews in Israel. We see this in the way in which this two-day holiday – the only two-day holiday we have, which often, as this year, stretches into three days – becomes a wonderful opportunity for people to get away and enjoy nature and the seashore. As someone once put it, “It is more honored in the beach than in the observance.”
The problem that secular Jews have with Rosh Hashana is that it has no particular historical or agricultural meaning. Furthermore there are few picturesque aspects that they can latch on to like a Seder or a succa. Therefore it is largely ignored.
Yom Kippur seems to have retained an aura of sanctity about it so that secular people at least respect it and may even go to the synagogue or stand outside it as their last tie to religious Judaism. Not so Rosh Hashana. The truth is that Rosh Hashana is indeed a religious holy day in the purest sense of the word, and if one is not a believer there is little attraction in it beyond the apples and honey.
The ancient origins of Rosh Hashana are obscure; the Torah tells us nothing about it other than that we are to sound the shofar (Leviticus 23:24-35; Numbers 29:1). It does not even call it “Rosh Hashana.” That moniker came later and is an innovation of the Sages. Even the idea that the world was created on that date is relatively new, and was not agreed upon by all the sages when the Mishna was compiled around 200 CE. Rabbinic Judaism made it into “Yom Hadin” – the Day of Judgment, and “Yom Hazikaron,” the Day of Remembrance when God remembers all of our deeds. It was the Sages who connected Rosh Hashana to the holiday that comes on the 10th of the month, Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. Thus Rosh Hashana became the time to begin the process of attaining forgiveness for our sins, and the sages specified that we are concerned not only with ritual cleansing of the Sanctuary, but with sins that are moral and ethical in nature.
Is all of this truly meaningless for the “secular” population? Do we not all need an opportunity to consider our actions, to judge our lives, to believe that what we do matters? Judgment implies responsibility. Our actions have consequences. They matter and they can be judged on an absolute scale, they can be classified as right or wrong. We are all called upon to consider our deeds and given an opportunity to make amends and to start afresh, changing and bettering ourselves. These ideas should be important for all of us, not only for “the religious.”
Observant Jews are too quick to write off the so-called “secular” population, and that population is too quick in divorcing itself from the Jewish tradition. Most of them are not atheists, not even agnostics. They simply are not “Orthodox” in accepting upon themselves the observance of Jewish Law as they have come to know it.
Rosh Hashana has a message and a meaning for all of us, “religious” and “secular” alike. All of us need a “day of remembrance” in which we consider what we have done and what we have not done over the past year and in which we make important decisions as to how we will continue our lives. All of us need a “day of judgment” in which we acknowledge our responsibility for our own lives. The observance of such a day will truly make this coming year a shana tova – “a good year” for us all.