Prelude to Rosh Hashanah

On September 10, City Congregation starts its calendar with a bang, celebrating the Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashanah. It will be my first time officiating as TCC’s Rabbi, and for many of you, the first time hearing me. On Rosh Hashanah I will be speaking about the theme of transition, which is a fitting topic for the season in general and for TCC in particular.

Rosh Hashanah is the beginning of the Jewish calendar, the school year, and the academic calendar, and autumn is around the corner. It is a day which Jews throughout the centuries have set aside for us to re-evaluate our relationships, make our new year resolutions, and perhaps begin our transition to becoming better people. For some this day is a little jarring, this call for change is so sudden; how are you supposed to begin a transition when you haven’t even thought of what you want to change or if you want to change at all?

The Jewish calendar has set aside a time for that as well if we wish – the month preceding Rosh Hashanah on the calendar – the Jewish month of Elul. It is set aside for contemplation, for preparing for Rosh Hashanah, for thinking of the ways we would like to make improvements in our lives and other people’s lives. Then when the Jewish New Year arrives, we can begin the process.

Allow me tell you a story of my first time experiencing this preparation when I was about nine. Like many nine-year-olds I was enamored of climbing. I would climb on roofs, to the top of trees, and over fences, the higher the better. One day in late August my adventures took me outside my neighbor’s yard, where grapes were growing. I had watched those grapes grow, and like the forbidden fruit of myth, I was tempted by them, and could not overcome this temptation. Quickly I climbed over the fence and ate of these glorious grapes, and nipped back home. No one saw me. For days I was wracked by guilt and fear; what would my fate be for stealing these grapes? I knew Rosh Hashanah was coming and I vaguely remembered that on Rosh Hashanah you are judged. Finally, I overcame my painful shyness, knocked on my neighbor’s door and apologized for taking the grapes.

Today, I realize that I was being judged, but I was the judge, not any supernatural being. For the first time in my life I was undergoing the process I have been discussing, a process that begins with thinking about what you want to change about yourself – and then doing something about it.

As humanists we can choose to use this opportunity offered by the Jewish calendar to shift our behavior and become better people. If you are looking for one way to make Rosh Hashanah meaningful to you this year, you can begin your contemplation now to prepare for the holiday.

Happy New Year and Shanah Tovah!

-Rabbi Tzemah Yoreh