Rosh Hashanah and the art of self re-creation - living vs. existing

Those who live without renewing themselves may be described more accurately as existing rather than living.

Pomegranates seen piled up at Machane Yehuda market, just in time for Rosh Hashana. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Pomegranates seen piled up at Machane Yehuda market, just in time for Rosh Hashana.
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
The art of living is inextricably linked with the art of renewal. The difference between an animate and inanimate object is that the latter always remains the same, while the former changes and develops constantly.
Development, change and leaving an impact on one’s environment constitute the essence of living. Those who live without renewing themselves may be described more accurately as existing rather than living.
Novelty is the fabric of passion and excitement. No one is enthusiastic about reading yesterday’s newspaper, and no one whose life involves a stale and endless routine is excited about waking up to a new day.
Every life-form is challenged with obsolescence. The dinosaurs could not adapt to a changing environment, and became extinct. Every year the Jewish nation is confronted with the challenge of personal and national renewal, and this is the essence of Rosh Hashanah, the New Year.
Every year we are confronted with the challenge of renewing our identities, both personal and public, and renewing our lives. If a movie star plays the same character in film after film, his fans will quickly tire of him. If a husband and wife pursue the same monotonous routine in their marriage, their union will grow stale and they will drift apart.
But renewal is no easy task. When we speak of refreshing our identities, we mean that the person’s core personality must find newer, deeper and more mature modes of expression. But if the individual changes completely, modifying his core, then he is even worse off than before. If a man changes so much so that his wife does not recognize him, she will not wish to stay married to him. The task, therefore, in every act of renewal is to identify what is our irreducible essence and then seek to reveal it in a deeper and more meaningful way.
The great challenge confronting every religion in the modern age, and the individual believer who subscribes to the faith, is how to achieve the correct balance between the old and new. At what stage do we modify accepted tradition in favor of more modern practices?
Judaism and other world faiths are suffering today because they have failed to adapt to the changing needs of a changing world. And in the many instances in which Judaism has made strong adaptations, its essence as an immutable law has been unwittingly compromised and passion therefore lost.
The question of renewing the faith pivots on the far more fundamental question of what is the essence of Judaism. Once that is identified, newer methods of revealing its essence can be employed.
In a similar, yet more personal fashion, every year on Rosh Hashanah the individual is challenged to rethink and identify his core being and bring it forward a year in order to remain current. But the changes he implements must accord with his deepest self.
The success of every captain of industry hinges around his ability to modernize his companies without compromising their core services or products.
The Roman Empire once covered seven-eighths of the civilized world’s land mass. Its emperors enjoyed power beyond human imagination, and its citizens benefited from a lifestyle that offered 215 holidays per year. Most of its work was done by slaves, and the empire lasted almost a millennium. But today the only thing that remains are ruins. Similarly, the British Empire once ruled 25% of the world’s land mass but has forfeited its global influence to the United States.
Where are both empires now? What led to their collapse?
They were defeated by the challenge of renewal. Like the dinosaurs before them, they failed to adapt to a changing environment. Stagnation leads to internal corrosion. Those societies that fail to renew themselves ultimately decay and collapse.
Internecine warfare made the Romans incapable of preventing the invasions of their barbarian neighbors, and the British failed to foresee the world transition from aristocracy to meritocracy. With the industrial revolution, the great powers would no longer be those where opportunity was closed off to a majority of their citizens, but, rather, would be those who were best able to harness the immense productivity and creativity of their citizens by allowing them access to capital and the material rewards of entrepreneurial ingenuity.
NOW THIS is a curious phenomenon. Why indeed is it essential to renew ourselves? Why can’t things just remain as they are?
When it comes to things like the dinosaurs, we understand why renewal is essential. If the ecology and the climate change, then the organisms that depend on that ecology must change as well.
If birds don’t fly south for the winter, then their wings will freeze and they will fall prey to every predator since they be unable to fly. If a Muscovite wears his thick Russian bearskin in the summer, he will suffer heatstroke.
But what about those of us who live in the same environment day in and day out? Why must we change? If things went well last year, and there are no social or environmental changes, why is there a need to evolve? If there is no external reason to adapt, then why do so?
The answer is provided in the very second chapter of Genesis, in my favorite biblical verse. There the Bible declares that “God created man in His image.” Just as God is a creator, so is man. The nature of a creator is to always invent. Every human being is an artist, and when we fail to conceive, produce and originate, when we pursue the same monotonous routine day in and day out, our lives lose their most essential ingredient – namely, passion.
Stated in other words, the reason that we must change, adapt and evolve always is to conform not with external modifications, but with internal ones. In the same way that there are seasons of the sun, there are seasons of the soul. Man is a dynamic creature, and he is constantly changing on the inside. The soul is a burning flame, and it flickers constantly. Humans cannot stagnate on the outside, because they do not stagnate on the inside.
When we cease to evolve, when we pursue the same daily routine, we lose our passion for what we are doing. Life ceases to engage us. A marriage with no change will have no spark. So long as ancient Rome expanded and legislated new laws, it evoked the highest talents – and passions – of its leaders, generals and citizenry. But once it sat down to enjoy the fruits of its labor, it quickly succumbed to historical inevitability, an irreversible death. Its vast holidays and half-day workday led its citizenry to become an uninspired morass that quickly decayed.
Human nature cannot be limited to producing the same thing over and over again. Each and every one of us is an artist. We need to build. We are naturally businessmen, not night watchmen. It is not enough to safeguard that which exists. We must build and expand constantly. And if we’re given something to preserve, rather than to build, then like the night watchman we quickly fall asleep on the job. One cannot be passionate in this type of occupation, because it does not accord with one’s truest, innermost self, which is to grow and be creative.
What’s at risk in failing to heed the call of Rosh Hashanah is not merely failing to perform repentance and failing in God’s judgment. Rather, what we lose is the opportunity to be more passionate about everything we will do in the coming year.
Einstein’s theory of relativity demonstrated that we are all beings of congealed energy. “Dust are thou, and to dust shall thou return.” We arise from nothingness and return to nothingness. We spring forth from the mixing together of the elements and later decompose and return to those same elements whence we stem.
But in that 80- to 90-year interval, we are afforded an opportunity to leave the world in a far better and more godly shape than how we found it. The only question that will need answering at the time when we return to nature is this: How much of an impact did we make on our environment? Man is designed to be a thermostat, not a thermometer. We are not meant to grow hot and cold with the seasons, but, rather, to create light and warmth and brighten the earth.
In Judaism, life would be defined as anything that changes its environment. Thus, the Patriarch Jacob is declared by the ancient Rabbis to still be alive because the monotheism and commitment to a godly lifestyle that he instilled within his children continues till this very day. Because his legacy lives on in their daily lives, and because he continues to impact upon his environment, he is still relevant, still alive.
Thus, renewal is essential to life because it is the very definition of life. Mankind is not a rock, and his destiny is not etched in stone. Unlike the ancient Greeks, Judaism rejects any belief that man is born doomed by a predetermined fate. Sophocles may have stated “Awful is the mysterious power of fate” and “Pray not at all, since there is no release for mortals from predestined calamity,” but Jews respond with the triumphant words of King David, “Lo amut ki eh’yeh, I shall not die for I shall live and speak the glory of God.”
LIKE ANY generation, ours recognizes the importance of renewal, but we find it in shopping, holidaying and watching new movies.
In essence, there are two ways to experience renewal, the first horizontally, the other vertically.
Lateral or horizontal renewal is where you find renewal externally in new experiences and new acquisitions. It is where man confronts his existential boredom by traveling and by purchasing new clothes. It is where a married man or woman finds a new and illicit lover rather than discover a new facet to his or her existing relationship.
Ours is a generation that has largely flunked the test of renewal. We do not find renewal through reinventing ourselves so much as trying new things and watching the newest series on Netflix. I am taken aback, when we advertise a new job, to see the list of applicants and the numerous jobs they have held by the age of 25. The days of people remaining content within one job for a decade are well over. Investment bankers are paid bonuses at the end of the year for fear that they will get up and leave in middle of the year. We all get restless after a year or two at the most and seek a new assignment in order to retain our interest.
But then there is vertical renewal, where man reaches deep into himself and unearths new and exciting dimensions of his personality. It is where men and women bring totally new facets to their shared lives. Having been created in the image of God, every human possesses infinite depth, and there is absolutely no limit to the store of meaning of which man is capable. This is real renewal. And although it is far more difficult to discover and bring to the fore, once found it lasts eternally.
When we speak of a man or woman of greatness, we refer primarily to someone who has no deep reliance on material wealth, possessions or consumption, since life itself is an endless challenge for them and they do not experience the kind of boredom to which the rest of us are so easily prone. A man or woman of greatness reaches vertically for renewal. They reach heavenward toward the infinite expanse of God, and inward toward the infinite depths of the human soul.
THE THREE key words of the High Holy Day prayer liturgy are teshuva, tefila, tzedakah – or repentance, prayer and charity. In these three words the essence of renewal is captured.
Renewal involves first repentance, or reaching more deeply into ourselves. Every man and woman possesses an inner innocence, a layer of pristine purity, which can never be tarnished or compromised. It is our ability to tap into this reservoir of simplicity and guiltlessness that leads to real repentance. In Judaism, “teshuva” translates literally not as “repentance” but as “return.” We are returning to our pristine, primordial selves, to our innermost essence, our true identity which is the spark of God that animates every human life-form. Teshuva, then, is man reaching into himself for resurrection and regeneration.
Next is tefila, or prayer, whereby man cries out to God, the source of his salvation. Prayer represents the ladder that connects God and man, bridging the infinite chasm that separates mortals from the unknowable God.
Then there is tzedaka, or charity, wherein we reach out of ourselves to our fellow man. Now that we have tapped our innocence and joined in sanctity with our source and Creator, we are able, indeed obligated, to share of that bounty and blessing with our fellow creatures and experience collective salvation.
Above all else, we find renewal in our compassion, from where we draw forth a sense of kinship and affinity with every creature of the earth. Because the final and perhaps most important step within the process of renewal is not only to find and experience our inner godliness, but to find God in every aspect of Creation. And we discover this, first and foremost, within the companionship and comradery of our fellow human beings.
When man reaches within, to the depths of his soul, and reaches heavenward toward the omnipotent Creator, he is simultaneously overwhelmed by a feeling of God’s abundant presence, which humbles him. He is then able to reach out to all his human brothers and sisters as equals, and the human family ushers in a new year of light, joy and blessing.
The writer, “America’s Rabbi,” is founder of This World: The Values Network. The international best-selling author of 30 books, he is the author of Kosher Lust: Love is Not the Answer. Follow him on Twitter @RabbiShmuley.