By Linda Rubin
“Rosh Hashana is the Jewish New Year, a time in which we're called to reflection and introspection. And it's a time during which we measure how successfully we are functioning in our relationships to other people and also to God,” said Rabbi Aaron D. Benson.
In preparation for the holidays, during the current Hebrew month of Elul, Jews traditionally begin the process of reflection and transformation by apologizing to their families, friends and colleagues for any betrayals or slights, whether done consciously or unawares. We are directed to seek forgiveness diligently, asking three times for exoneration if it is not readily granted.
Toward the end of the month, the last Saturday before Rosh Hashana, we observe the service of Selichot where we begin to ask God (or the universe or the inner voice) to absolve us for the “sins,” misdirection, or errors of the last year. “This work of reflection and improvement [is what] in Hebrew we call teshuva,” Benson explained.
“If Selichot is the real beginning of the process in earnest,” Benson continued, “then Rosh Hashana is the day on which we are called do the serious work of correcting and improving—or at least determining how we're going to correct and improve—our relationships.”Rosh Hashana is considered the birthday of the world. Benson says this is an opportunity for Jews to acknowledge and be grateful to be part of this creation and that we have obligations to everyone else and everything with whom we share the world.
“And then Yom Kippur is understood as the Day of Atonement and also the Day of Judgment, and so it serves as the final deadline for having done this period of teshuva. Of course, we can do this all year ‘round but human beings being human beings, it's good to have some deadlines on the calendar to work towards,” he said.
“On Rosh Hashana it is written and on Yom Kippur it is sealed,” goes the traditional liturgy. We aspire to being metaphorically inscribed for life in the Book of Life, as a result of our actions during the previous year and our earnest efforts to correct mistakes. And even the worst of us have the opportunity for a reprieve:
(Based on the U'Netaneh Tokef prayer)
On Rosh Hashana it is inscribed and on Yom Kippur it is sealed,
How many shall pass away and how many shall be born,
Who shall live and who shall die,
Who shall reach the end of his days and who shall not,
Who shall perish by water and who by fire,
Who by sword and who by wild beast,
Who by famine and who by thirst,
Who by earthquake and who by plague,
Who by strangulation and who by stoning,
Who shall have rest and who shall wander,
Who shall be at peace and who shall be pursued,
Who shall be at rest and who shall be tormented,
Who shall be exalted and who shall be brought low,
Who shall become rich and who shall be impoverished.
But repentance, prayer and righteousness avert the severe decree.
Those of you who are not members of the tribe and want to know how to express a holiday greeting, wish your friends of the Mosaic persuasion “L'shana tovah” (Happy New Year) or, even hipper, “L'Shanah Tovah Tikatevu,” (May you be inscribed for a good year).