In American culture, marking the New Year often means parties, champagne and resolutions to lose weight. It’s an all-out festive occasion, marking the end of the holiday season that began with Thanksgiving.
In the Jewish faith, things are a little different.
Starting this year at sundown on Sunday, Sept. 16, the Jewish holiday of Rosh Hashanah (literally, the Head of the Year), is both the celebratory kickoff to an entire month of holidays and a solemn opportunity to reflect on the past year. Prayers and teachings related to the holiday frequently refer to a Book of Life, in which all those who will enjoy Divine favor in the coming year are written. Each person has the opportunity to improve his/her fate by engaging in teshuvah, repentance for sins and indiscretions and by working to improve.
“Rosh Hashanah is the Day of Judgment, as mentioned in the Talmud and incorporated in the liturgy” explained Rabbi Yeheskel Lebovic of Congregation Ahavath Zion in Maplewood. “The upcoming year is dependent on the outcome of said Judgment, and repentance, which has the ability to elicit (divine) forgiveness and wipe the slate clear.”
For many Jews, Rosh Hashanah and teshuvah are annual reminders of the possibility to renew relationships with God and with each other.
”Teshuvah literally means ‘return’ versus repent; and repent connotes a drastic, complete turnover from a preceding ‘sinful state’ to a newly developed repentant state,” said Lebovic. “Judaism believes in the pure original state of every soul, only subsequently tainted by bad personal choices. Teshuvah permits one to return.”
Repentance is a key element for Jews in getting to wherever they are going and classic Jewish texts list five steps for individuals to complete in order to achieve it: recognize the sin, show remorse, stop the sinful act, make restitution where possible and confess to the sin. Teshuvah takes on a more tangible form with the tradition of tashlich wherein Jews gather near a body of water during the Rosh Hashanah holiday and literally cast away their sins by throwing small pieces of bread into the water.
“All these practices together are the process by which we can return to our best selves,” said Rabbi Mark Cooper of Oheb Shalom Congregation in South Orange. “We acknowledge that we are each endowed with a soul and we strive to live in harmony with other beings in our world.”
During the past year, anyone may have gossiped, been unkind to a friend or spouse, closed oneself off to the suffering of others, or lied. Yet with the coming of the New Year on Rosh Hashanah, every person gets a new chance to confront those behaviors and resolve to change for the better. It can be a bit overwhelming and some rabbis recommend looking at each category of one’s life separately – love relationships, relationships with parents and children, honesty in business or learning – and finding one small way to improve in each. Then, check in every three or six months to see if real change has happened and if not, to try again.
Given all of the problems in today’s world including ongoing financial uncertainty, war, violence and corruption, it can be difficult for people to remember that Rosh Hashanah is still a joyous time and that the process of teshuvah can play a positive role. For some, the act of repentance refocuses attention and affirms the power within us.
“The human spirit is very resilient,” said Cooper. “We are capable of enduring dark times but we also celebrate life.”
Family and friends can be powerful inspirations for repentance, provided individuals focus not on perfection, but on forgiveness and appreciation for what is good in each person.
“I’m inspired by the season of the year and all the new beginnings,” said Cooper. “Every day is an opportunity to turn around and every day we can do teshuvah. We are not always at our best, but Rosh Hashanah reminds us to reset our clocks and try again.”