Tradition Today: Choose life

Rosh Hashana carries a message of religious significance that is second to none – one that can enhance human life and add meaning to our days and years.

Rosh Hashana honey (photo credit: Karen Cohen)
Rosh Hashana honey
(photo credit: Karen Cohen)
For those of us with “Anglo-Saxon” backgrounds, whether we are totally observant or not, Rosh Ha- shana, together with Yom Kippur, is a time of great importance. Even those who are not regular “shul-goers” make arrangements to attend a syna- gogue on those days.
This is a carry over from our lives in the Diaspora where being a “three-days-a-year Jew” was common, where synagogues prepare overflow services on Rosh Hashana, Jewish children stay out of public school on those days and rabbis prepare their sermons with great care months in advance – since this is the only time of year they may see all of their congregants.
And yet here in Israel, this is not the case. Yom Kippur retains some measure of sacredness, for whatever reason, and even the non-observant do not usually publicly desecrate it, although they may or may not actually go to the synagogue.
But Rosh Hashana? It’s a wonderful time because it is the only two-day holiday we have, and this year, since it falls on Thursday and Friday, it becomes a four-day holiday – something really special, a great time to get away and enjoy oneself.
So the campgrounds are crowded around Lake Kinneret (the Sea of Galilee), the holiday hotels are filled and Rosh Hashana – pardon the pun – is more honored on the beach than in observance.
For the non-observant Israeli, Rosh Hashana is one of the least important and least observed holidays of the Jewish year. The reason is obvious. All the other holidays are connected to Jewish history or to the agricultural year, and have picturesque and enjoyable customs to observe. Rosh Hashana has none of that, except perhaps the eating of honey and special foods. It has no real connection to Jewish history, to the land, to agriculture. It is strictly “religious,” spiritual in nature. It is centered on our connection to God, on the concept of sin, repentance and judgment, right and wrong. If one does not believe in God, why bother? Yet Rosh Hashana is indeed one of the most important religious holidays we have. It has many messages to convey to us, not the least of which is the importance and sanctity of life. “Inscribe us in the book of life,” we plead, meaning this life here on earth, not some life in a world to come. This world, this life is all-important in Judaism and how we live it is the most important decision we can make. Therefore Rosh Hashana emphasizes choice. As the Torah says, “I set before you life and death, blessing and curse – choose life” (Deut. 30:19).
We are not puppets on a string to be maneuvered. We have the ability to choose, and the choices we make will determine the meaning of our lives. In turn, the ability to choose, free will, implies the ability to change. We are not fated to live a certain way. No matter what, we can change and become better than we were. Viktor Frankl captured the meaning of these High Holy Days when he wrote, “Man… may well change himself, otherwise he would not be man. It is a prerogative of being human, and a constituent of human existence, to be capable of shaping and reshaping oneself. In other words, it is a privilege of man to become guilty, and his responsibility to overcome guilt.” Is there a more important message than that? Rosh Hashana may lack the beauty of the Succot rituals, the intimacy and family togetherness of the Passover Seder, the fun of Purim and the lights of Hanukka, but it carries a message of religious significance that is second to none – one that can enhance human life and add meaning to our days and years. Shana tova!■
The writer, former president of the International Rabbinical Assembly, is a two-time winner of the National Book Award. His latest book is The Torah Revolution (Jewish Lights).