By Dan Brosgol
Rosh Hashanah never really comes at the right time, crashing into the secular calendar without regard to the schedules of school, ballet, pennant races, or youth soccer games.
Sometimes it comes right after Labor Day, and sometimes it comes in October. Some years it’s in the middle of a late summer heat wave, while in other years we are already breaking out the fleece and the cider. No matter when it pops up (this year, the holiday starts at sundown on Wednesday, September 20), life comes to a screeching halt and we end up not in school and not at work, but in synagogue, dusting off tunes that we only hear three times a year and going from a pace of 0-to-60 on the High Holidays meter, seemingly in no time at all. It’s a little disorienting.
But every year at Rosh Hashanah, the blowing of the shofar (a ram’s horn) calls us to attention. Wake up! Listen up! Get serious. It is a powerful sound, perhaps one that used to bring armies to battle and allegedly preceded the revelation of the Ten Commandments at Mount Sinai.
The liturgy of the Rosh Hashanah service has many highlights—last year I wrote about the Unetaneh Tokef prayer, which is rife with meaning and acknowledges that the coming year is going to hold both happiness and sorrow. But this year, the text I will share is a different one, taken from the service that is built around the ritual sounding of the shofar.
After the shofar is blown we say a prayer that begins with the words “Hayom harat olam/hayom ya’amid bamishpat.” Now the classic translation to this line is “Today the world was born/today the world will stand in judgment,” following a Rabbinic interpretation that the world was physically created on Rosh Hashanah. From a precise linguistic perspective, though, that translation of the first three words is not really accurate. You could also read it as “Today is the birthday of the world,” “Today the world was conceived,” or, my current favorite, “This day is pregnant with eternity.”
One of those translations buries the event of creation firmly in the past and carries with it the heavy weight of the second part of the line about the world standing in judgment. And I get that—it gives us clear moral imperatives and intends to keep us in line by reminding us to do good and act justly, for God is always watching and judging.
But that last translation, “This day is pregnant with eternity,” can be taken many ways. Perhaps it means on that First Day of the world, the universe was pregnant with potential and what-ifs and we are still realizing the unpredictable outcomes of all that primordial unknown. Perhaps it means that each Rosh Hashanah is a time when we can step back and make enough time to take a full, long look at ourselves and our actions of the past year.
I like those ideas, but maybe it’s better to think of each Rosh Hashanah, each turn of the year, as a moment in time that is pregnant with eternity, full of the potential and the hopes and dreams of a new year, full of unpredictability, but also full of possibility. To hold that belief, while also holding the memories, both good and bad, of the prior year, is to bring the previous chapter to a close while looking towards the future with hope. It is not a reset button, not a pause, and not a cleaning of the slate; after all, our past, and our immediate past, in particular, informs our perspective on the future. Rather, it is a moment of reorientation, a moment of appreciation for all that the year might hold in store for us, and an acknowledgment that each year, if not each day, is full of infinite possibilities.
No doubt many of us will turn the page to the year 5778, or in a few months to 2018, or both, with hopes and prayers for a year of peace, happiness, and goodness.
I wish you all a shana tovah u’metukah, a sweet new year.