Let’s begin with an ancient, yet still provocative question: Why is this coming holiday called Rosh Hashana? After all, the Torah refers to it as Yom Trua, the day of sounding the Shofar, the principal mitzva of the day, while the Kiddush prayer calls it Yom Hazikaron, the day of remembering.
We could also have named it Yom Harat Olam, the birthday of the world, as it is often referred to in the high holy day prayer book. Alternately, we might have called it Shana Hadasha or Hat’halat Hashana, literally, the new year or the beginning of the year.
Why did we settle on Rosh Hashana, the head of the year?! Last week, I did something I haven’t done for a very long time. I cleared my schedule, and I headed to the beach. I sat there alone, in a secluded spot, for two hours, just staring at the water. And thinking. Not about any particular issue, or about the latest crisis in this never-dull land of ours, or the headlines of the day.
Just thinking, letting my mind take me wherever it wanted to go. Gazing at our magnificent slice of the endless sea, I thought about how expansive God’s universe is; about how deep and mysterious and hidden is the world in which we live; about how each human being – glorious and talented a creature as he or she is – is but a drop in the great ocean of humanity.
It was a glorious experience.
Somehow, despite all the vast volumes of wisdom readily available to us through the miracle of the media, we have lost the ability, the power, the joy of thinking. Perhaps it is the intense pressure of continuous multitasking that robs us of the opportunity to think.
Perhaps it is our overdependence on television, or the Internet, which, while they may contain mountains of information, “dumb us down” when we sit passively, almost mindlessly, in front of them. True intellectual growth comes not from simply digesting the thoughts and ideas of others – brilliant and inspiring as they may be – but in developing our own independent concepts and creations. By making the effort to explore the recesses of our own minds, we can discover new and shockingly enlightening revelations about ourselves, our place in the cosmos, the human condition, and God.
Our greatest heroes spent long periods of time in splendid isolation. The biblical figures we venerate – Abraham, Moses, David among them – were predominantly shepherds. The rabbis explain that there were several reasons why they chose this profession, and how it helped develop their leadership qualities: It molded their care for every living thing. Moses, in particular, was chosen to lead the nation after God witnessed his compassion for a single, lost sheep. It also humbled them, for the shepherd was considered the lowliest of occupations. But most of all, it gave them long periods of quiet time to just think, to come to grips with the essentials of life, to plot their own course and direction for the future.
The hassidic masters and kabbalists who flourished in the Carpathian Mountains, the forests of Lithuania, in Safed and other places thought likewise.
They understood the value of hitbodedut, spending time alone in places of still, secluded natural beauty, pondering the imponderable, wrestling with the essential quandaries and complexities of eternity, striving mightily to mentally go where others had never been before.
In more modern times, numerous great works of literature were penned while their authors were locked in prison.
These include Cervantes’s Don Quixote, The Travels of Marco Polo, Thoreau’s Civil Disobedience and seminal works by Oscar Wilde, Martin Luther King, Jr., Nelson Mandela, E. E. Cummings and one of my personal favorites, William Sydney Porter, better known as O. Henry.
Alone with their thoughts, free of invasive stimuli, they could process and perfect their craft, or organize their own worldview before proclaiming it to the public.
Jewish life contains a distinct dichotomy of intellectual discipline. On the one hand, we have an unbroken chain of Jewish thought which emanates from the highest places, allowing us to delve into and digest the Torah and teachings of the great rabbis who came before us. They form the foundation of what we know and what we believe. At the same time, we cannot abdicate our God-given mandate to also think for ourselves. Our souls crave the desire to satisfy their own wondering; they prod us to probe deep questions, to creatively expand our horizons and meet the challenges of the future.
And now we understand why the rabbis wisely chose the name “Rosh Hashana” – “the Head of the year” as the primary name for the holiday. It is the ability to use our head – to think of where we have been these past 12 months, and where we should be going, if a blessed new year is granted to us – that is the central challenge that lies before us.
In their dramatic dialogue near the conclusion of the classic film Casablanca, Ingrid Bergman turns to Humphrey Bogart and says: “I don’t know what’s right... you have to think for both of us.”
That may have worked well for them in the movie, but it’s much more admirable – even Godly – when we have the courage to think for ourselves.
Shana tova to all.The writer is director of the Jewish Outreach Center of Ra’anana and a member of the Ra’anana City Council; firstname.lastname@example.org.