By Dan Brosgol
Thanks to the machinations of Judaism’s lunar calendar, Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish new year, arrives early this year, beginning on Sunday night, September 9, and ending on Tuesday evening, September 11. Rosh Hashanah kicks off the Hebrew month of Tishrei, one which features seven festival days, four Sabbaths, and two other lesser holidays; it’s a busy month.
As the new year dawns, or more appropriately, dusks (as the holiday starts at sunset), it offers everyone, Jews and non-Jews alike, to chance to take stock of the previous year. What went well? Were we our best selves? Where did we fall short? Did we wrong others? Did we do our best? If not, why? We can ask ourselves these questions until the cows come home, but suffice to say that they are eternal and we should keep asking them, in addition to admitting that we aren’t perfect and can always find something to atone for.
This year, as we enter the high holidays and the reckoning of Yom Kippur, when tradition holds that God evaluates our conduct and gives us the opportunity to atone for our sins and wipe the slate clean, I’m struck by a tension between individual action and divine power.
While one can acknowledge that God may be omnipotent, one can also look at this action/atonement dynamic and say that at the end of the day, God sits out the day-to-day of the world and our lives are basically up to us. Sure, God inspires us with wisdom, insights, and teaching, and yes, God may very well have designed this entire world and construct in which we go about the business of our lives, but our actions are our own and no one’s pulling our strings. The prayers of the high holidays are rife with the language of God’s mercy and forgiveness juxtaposed with that of human’s proclivity to do the wrong thing.
But this reflection for me is not the beginning of a new year’s resolution or a metaphor about God-as-parent. Instead, it’s a reminder that in this world, what we do is entirely up to us. On the one hand, if you do nothing, you will probably get nothing- the older I get the more I realize that we are not entitled to anything, and this is a good time to remember that. On the flip side, in life you can also do something and see what happens, knowing full well that your actions will have consequences, both intended and unintended. My advice? Be someone that does something. Be a changemaker. Work for what you believe in. After all, if you don’t live your life, no one’s going to live it for you.
At the climax of one of my favorite Rosh Hashanah prayers, a piyyut (liturgical poem) called Adonai Melech (God Reigns), we affirm that on this day, both mortals and angels acclaim God’s greatness and attest that “All the fiery sparks are renewed each morning.” To me, this is a stirring reminder that each day, and yes, each year, has all of the potential that the world had at the moment of its creation, and that’s it’s up to us to go out and be, for lack of a better term, creative.
So in 5779, I encourage all of you to go forth and live life to its fullest and to strive for your goals and work hard for what is important to you. There’s no good reason not to and really, there’s only one caveat- that you’ll have to live with the consequences, both good and bad, of your actions. The good news is that if something doesn’t go according to plan, you can always own that next year during the high holidays.
I wish you all a Shana Tovah u’Metukah, a sweet new year, and a 5779 full of doing great things.