Erev Rosh Hashanah, the start of the Jewish New Year and the High Holy Days, started at sunset last night. I sat through a Reform service livestreamed from a Cincinnati temple, Temple Sholom. It was the first New Year's service I have attended in over three decades. To my surprise, some of the prayers (I did not have a prayerbook, so I was lost at times) and many of the melodies came rushing back to me.
I once read a rabbi contrasting the American New Year and the Jewish New Year. We ring in the New Year in America (and, indeed, in many parts of the world) with partying, alcohol, and fireworks on New Year's Eve. On January 1, we come together to watch football games.
In contrast, the Jewish New Year begins with an evening of prayer and worship, and the first morning of the New Year is spent in more of the same.
Rosh Hashanah starts ten days of contemplation, atonement, and personal reflection that will not end until sunset on October 4 at the conclusion of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. Sometimes that period is called the Days of Awe. It is a time of looking backward over the last year and of looking forward to the year to come. One of the rabbis last night reminded us that there is a continue pull between two extremes: "I am but dust and ashes" and "the world was created entirely for me."
The rabbi spoke at length about the latter statement. It is s statement not about ego ("look how special I am!") but about celebrating the uniqueness of every individual. For those of us who give constantly to others, she reminded us that we need to value ourselves and to make sure we also nurture our own lives.
The rabbi then quoted from a poem by Marianne Williamson: "it is our light, not our darkness, that frightens us." It is our obligation, she said, to see the Divine in every moment. Let your living be sacred in a way that reminds you of the beauty of the world.
This morning I rejoined the congregation for the Rosh Hashanah service. Rabbi Terlinchamp reminded us that Rosh Hashanah is a chance for renewal, to be a better person. Presenting a passionate, powerful sermon about marriage equality, truth, and justice, she alluded to Yom Kippur and the part of the service where we rap our chests over our hearts. That should not be seen as our beating ourselves in penance, the rabbi said, but rather as knocking our hearts to open them up to the wrongs of the world that it is our duty to try to correct.
Rosh Hashanah and the days that follow are a period that requires the Jew to look inward, to atone not only for everything that has been done in anger, hurt, or malice, but also for everything that was not done and should have been done.
These are Days of Awe indeed.