Rosh Hashanah presents an interesting quandary to the Modern Jew. For so many of us, the specter of a three day holiday scares us into apocalypse mode. Some of us return home to the complexities of family dynamics; others remember their earlier days of fear and passion, while some just feel the weight of boredom pressing down on their long weekend. We ask each other, “So, how do you plan on getting through the holiday?” This assumes that we must struggle, even fight with the status quo of our expectations of these days to make them meaningful, or even enjoyable. We feel shock that on some level we might even look forward to the holiday. We horde books and other means of entertainment to distract us through the storm. We get through the day with the reward of DVRed TV that awaits us when that time finally elapses. Essentially, our accumulated baggage detours us from the simple opportunities of the day, opportunities that exist despite our espoused beliefs.
Because, when looked at with the calm of distance, as a day in the year, Rosh Hashanah manages to encapsulate the range of human experience. Nothing evades its grasp. Not the smallest, mundane detail of life falls outside its range. The ideas of the day, whether you believe in their literal truth or not, allow us to live, if we so choose, on a different plane of existence, a more immediate, urgent level of life. The day recreates that first experience of the knowledge of your own personal death. We all know about death: we hear reports of its machinations on the news, we attend funerals, we even worry about friends and family, but that moment when you truly confront mortality surpasses all these experiences. The prospect of our physical demise, of our cessation of breath, ironically hones our intellect and sends our senses into a frenetic dance. We know this. We learned this in high school, we read about this from the existentialists in college, and we experience it from time to time in the trenches of everyday living, but Rosh Hashanah ritualizes this confrontation. In that sense, despite the abstract nature of the day, a day spent muttering, speeding through, or shouting old words, Rosh Hashanah ultimately partakes in the most physical aspect of our existence: our transience.
Regardless of what we believe, whether in atheism, monotheism, agnosticism, etc. we cannot pretend our lives end differently. Death certainly equalizes, to an extent. But given the opportunity of the day, a day of solemnity, a day reckoning, of redemption, renewal, cleansing, introspection, gratefulness, a day of questioning, of confronting our choices, putting them through the lens of our ideals and values, measuring the extent to which our actual selves measure up against our ideal selves, and even questioning our goals in life, we neglect the drama of the day at our own personal loss. For these activities, all falling under the larger umbrella of what we like to call self-awareness, apply to everyone.
Rosh Hashanah, for all its complexity, allows us to take, one maybe two days in the year, and act like Socrates, or that pesky advocate of the devil, in questioning our most basic assumptions about life. How can we not embrace this chance? In our day to day living we rarely, for a sustained period of time, question the foundations of our life. We can quibble over the details of the day, or fret over a certain issue, but rarely does that lead us down the path into the ambiguity of our values. As many comment, it appears that most people in the world live their lives based on a somewhat coherent set of rules and values. Deep down we all believe in something, a guiding principle, whether that entails a more humanistic or a more religious bent. However, most of us do not explore our system of thought enough, or cannot express it coherently on any given day. But imagine a day in which someone, whether God or tradition, culture, or family demands an answer to the question of why do you live this way and not that? And yet, something about this demand makes us uncomfortable.
Though we, as a culture, value self-awareness, the idea of judgment stands as one of the new cardinal sins along with intolerance, racism, naivete and others. Consequently, we shy away from “judging” lifestyle choices. A person may choose to spend their free time volunteering, good for them, while most people might choose to spend their free time relaxing, or catching up on TV. Both are equally fine choices as long as neither hurts any other person. Charles Taylor comments that we no longer think of morality when we think of how to live the good life, though, for centuries philosophers saw lifestyle and worldview as one of the main realms of morality. Nowadays, we look at the good life as a matter of pragmatism. Whatever works for that person’s self actualization without causing harm to another person falls within the purview of an acceptable lifestyle. But Taylor points out the loss of discernment as to what we truly want from life when we stop learning how to “judge” lifestyles. Now, this treads into dangerous territory, one of discrimination, arrogance, and intolerance, but in some ways he seems right. We are a culture that knows way more about the details of what we do than about why do these activities in the first place.
Perhaps then, Rosh Hashanah, whether in a synagogue or out, whether hearing the wake up call of the shofar or not, allows us to set aside time to take a step back and ask ourselves the basic questions of life: why this and not that? What do I believe in and why? What do I want to accomplish in life? What type of relationship do I desire with other people, with my family, friends, and significant others. What do I value in life, what does that say, if anything, about me as a person? Can I improve as a person? On one level these questions seem so obvious, simplistic, to almost border on the clichéd, but we can deny their power when truly dwelled upon. They can shake our foundations if we let them, and we all need a tiny experiential earthquake from time to time.
Here’s wishing everyone a Happy, Healthy, self-aware/actualized, year.
Thanks for reading,
Here are some gorgeous poems regarding self awareness, repentance, and introspection:
The first two are from Yehuda Amichai:
A man in his life
A man doesn't have time in his life
to have time for everything.
He doesn't have seasons enough to have
a season for every purpose. Ecclesiastes
Was wrong about that.
A man needs to love and to hate at the same moment,
to laugh and cry with the same eyes,
with the same hands to throw stones and to gather them,
to make love in war and war in love.
And to hate and forgive and remember and forget,
to arrange and confuse, to eat and to digest
takes years and years to do.
A man doesn't have time.
When he loses he seeks, when he finds
he forgets, when he forgets he loves, when he loves
he begins to forget.
And his soul is seasoned, his soul
is very professional.
Only his body remains forever
an amateur. It tries and it misses,
gets muddled, doesn't learn a thing,
drunk and blind in its pleasures
and its pains.
He will die as figs die in autumn,
Shriveled and full of himself and sweet,
the leaves growing dry on the ground,
the bare branches pointing to the place
where there's time for everything.
The waters cannot return in repentance
The waters cannot return in repentance
To where would they return?
To the faucet, the sources, the ground, the roots,
the cloud, the sea, into my mouth?
The waters cannot return in repentance,
every place is their seas/days of old, their waters of old,
every place a beginning and end, and a beginning.
Jorge Luis Borges: (It's shocking that a man of such complexity wrote such a simple, yet elegant, basic poem)
If I could live again my life,
In the next - I'll try,
- to make more mistakes,
I won't try to be so perfect,
I'll be more relaxed,
I'll be more full - than I am now,
In fact, I'll take fewer things seriously,
I'll be less hygenic,
I'll take more risks,
I'll take more trips,
I'll watch more sunsets,
I'll climb more mountains,
I'll swim more rivers,
I'll go to more places - I've never been,
I'll eat more ice creams and less (lime) beans,
I'll have more real problems - and less imaginary
I was one of those people who live
prudent and prolific lives -
each minute of his life,
Offcourse that I had moments of joy - but,
if I could go back I'll try to have only good moments,
If you don't know - thats what life is made of,
Don't lose the now!
I was one of those who never goes anywhere
without a thermometer,
without a hot-water bottle,
and without an umbrella and without a parachute,
If I could live again - I will travel light,
If I could live again - I'll try to work bare feet
at the beginning of spring till
the end of autumn,
I'll ride more carts,
I'll watch more sunrises and play with more children,
If I have the life to live - but now I am 85,
- and I know that I am dying ..
MY life closed twice before its close;
It yet remains to see
If Immortality unveil
A third event to me,
So huge, so hopeless to conceive, 5
As these that twice befell.
Parting is all we know of heaven,
And all we need of hell.