I cannot remember a time when Rosh HaShanah was not a highlight of my year. As a small child I was not quite certain what it was all about, but I knew something solemn was in the air, and I constantly hummed the yom-tov melodies I heard in shule.
Then I grew up and discovered the serious content of the occasion. Not merely the sounding of the shofar, but the liturgy that celebrates God as king, judge and redeemer, the majestic words and uplifting thoughts – all gave me something for the mind as well as the heart and soul.
Every year since then the Rosh HaShanah experience has been a trusty old friend. But every year it speaks to me with a new freshness and challenge that never ceases to amaze me.
As a ba’al k’ri’ah I know well the Torah readings for the two days, and the haftarot. Not just their phraseology and trope, but their substance.
All deal with yearnings, hopes and fears. All are ancient stories, but it could be my yearnings, hopes and fears they depict.
On the first day the Torah reading is the story of the birth of Yitzchak after so many years in which his parents were barren. The haftarah tells a similar story, of Channah’s prayer answered by the birth of Shmuel.
On the second day the Torah portion is Avraham’s anguish at the Akedah; the haftarah is of Rachel’s tears when her children go into exile.
My mind is awash with thoughts evoked by these familiar stories. Four in particular –
1. The age-old Jewish concern for continuity. Avraham and Sarah, Channah and Rachel, Jews in every generation were apprehensive that the tradition might end with them unless there was a future generation to maintain the heritage.
2. The confidence that God will help. When almost consumed with worry, none of the Biblical figures gives way to pessimism or thinks there is no way out. They – we too – understand that if we play our part, God will match us and play His.
3. The innate piety of Jewish women, even greater than that of the men. All the Rosh HaShanah readings focus on prayers offered by women. Judaism recognises that men need more rituals than women in order to cultivate a spiritual feeling: women, on the other hand, seem to have a more natural spiritual sensibility.
4. The fulfilment of dreams does not come easily. The Rosh HaShanah readings show that sometimes you are in danger of losing what is most precious to you – in one chapter Yitzchak is given, in the next almost taken away; in the haftarot – especially on the second day – mothers weep at the possibility that their children may be lost to them. What you have you must cherish and guard with fierce determination, but if you have to let go you must do so with dignity.
This is part of what I read into and out of the Rosh HaShanah tradition.
Shanah Tovah Um’tukah… a year of peace, health and Divine blessing!