Reflections: Rosh Hashana for the non-observant Israeli

Of all the Jewish holidays, with the possible exception of Shavuot, this is the one that seems least important to the general population.

Rosh Hashanah (photo credit: REUTERS)
Rosh Hashanah
(photo credit: REUTERS)
As we approach Rosh Hashana, I am once again struggling to understand why those days that are so central to Jewish life in the Diaspora are so unimportant in Israel. I suppose I should be used to it by now, having lived here for more than four decades, but somehow I cannot quite assimilate it.
Of all the Jewish holidays, with the possible exception of Shavuot, this is the one that seems least important to the general population; i.e. those who do not identify themselves as dati’im (observant), which is the majority of the Ashkenazi population.
For them Rosh Hashana is a great time – but not as a Jewish holiday. It is the only holiday that lasts for two days, which means a nice amount of time off. That means that it is a good time to travel, a good time to go camping, a good time for anything really save going to synagogue or observing any religious rituals.
But when I stop to think about it, I do know the reason. It is that of all the holidays of the Jewish year, Rosh Hashana is the most spiritual, the most purely religious. It deals only with spiritual matters like sin and repentance, and is the least connected with Jewish history, agriculture or the Land of Israel.
The only other one like it is Yom Kippur, which for some reason still remains somewhat sacred even for non-observant Jews. That may have something to do with guilt and the desire to wipe the slate clean, or perhaps the unconscious feeling that, for all that, a Jew should observe something! Rosh Hashana lacks colorful symbols like the sukka or the lighting of the hanukkia and has none of the fun of Purim, so who needs it? The average non-religious Israeli is already alienated from religion for a variety of reasons and may already be a third or fourth generation secularist, with few memories of religious observance even with grandparents. Yet I would argue that even for them, Rosh Hashana has some important messages and deserves not to be ignored. Yes, attention must be paid.
Let me point to two of the central themes. The first is the joy of being alive in this world, the celebration of life, a kind of magnificent “L’haim!” There are a few folk customs connected with the holiday; namely the foods that are eaten, beginning with apples and honey, and the prayer asking for a “sweet New Year.”
All of them symbolize goodness and a positive view of life. The prayers and verses read are all positive, never negative, because we are celebrating the creation of the world – the very existence of this awe-inspiring universe, something that was emphasized recently by the eclipse of the sun. We do not appreciate the world and life enough and we could use a day or two when this is emphasized.
I know that, speaking personally, this has been a very depressing period of time.
One reads the paper or watches the news on TV or the Internet day after day and sees a dysfunctional America whose very basic values are under siege, where the ideals of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution with the Bill of Rights are being called into question.
Then one turns to Israel and is confronted with corruption in government from the local to the national level and with attempts by government officials to create laws that would undermine the values of our Declaration of Independence, curtail our freedom of expression, and undermine the rule of law.
Rosh Hashana can serve as an antidote to all of this by giving us the feeling that things can improve, that human beings can change, that there are basic values that are worth living and fighting for.
The second message of Rosh Hashana that should speak to everyone, the non-religious included, is that there is such a thing as responsibility. Humans are responsible for their acts. That is the underlying meaning of the fact that this is Yom Hadin, the day of judgment.
Of course, for those who believe in God – even if the concept of God is not the simplistic one that we encounter most often, but a more sophisticated one of a moral power in the universe – it is God who judges us. But it is also we ourselves who must judge what we have done and who must acknowledge that we are responsible for our actions.
We do not live in a moral void. We are responsible and we have the ability to change and improve. There is nothing more important than that to teach to our children, religious or secular.
So as we move toward Rosh Hashana, let me wish everyone a shana tova umetuka – a good and sweet New Year, and let me urge you to take advantage of these days and make them more than just another beach holiday. Use them as a time of celebration of being alive and of appreciating the world in which we live.
Never take it for granted. And make it a time of reaffirming responsible living, based on the moral and ethical principles that are taught by our great tradition. All of that offers us hope for the future. L’haim!
The writer is a former president of the International Rabbinical Assembly and a member of its Committee on Jewish Law and Standards. He is a two-time winner of the National Jewish Book Award, one of which was for Entering the High Holy Days.