I’ve always loved New Year’s: the celebrations, ushering in the year with a kiss, and making resolutions or setting goals. Even at a time in life when most of my friends began preferring to stay home with their kids (or by themselves), I still wanted to go out and celebrate.
The last few years, though, I’ve become involved in dialogue with Judaism, and while I still celebrate New Year’s, I now also celebrate a different New Year in a different way.
Rosh Hashanah this year begins at sundown on Friday, Sept. 26. Also called the Jewish New Year, it is part of the holiest period on the Jewish calendar.
I’ve celebrated this time in a Reform synagogue, with a group of Jewish women (I’m the only Christian in the group), in two different Hasidic synagogues (the Hasidim are a mystical branch of Orthodox Judaism) and with a Jewish Renewal group. Each year has been a special and holy time for me.
Rosh Hashanah is a time for deep, personal reflection for Jews. The various Jewish sects understand it in different ways, but it is a holy time for all of Judaism. “Awake from your slumbers” writes Maimonides, “and reflect on your deeds. …Look well to your souls and improve your character. Forsake each of you his evil ways and thoughts.” During this High Holy Day, the “shofar,” or ram’s horn, is blown, and God is seen as moving from the throne of judgment to the throne of mercy.
Last year, the Jewish women’s group of which I’m a part put together handbooks to guide us in our personal reflection and meditation. As much as possible, we were to spend time each day probing our hearts for attitudes that needed to be changed. Then we met with our “chevruta,” or study partner, to reflect together. My two chevrutas–Karen and Nancy–and I met in a restaurant and shared deeply for two hours. Then we stood in the parking lot as they sang a Hebrew blessing for me, in celebration of the book I’d just completed.
I also attended “Selichot,” a service in which the cover of the Torah scroll is removed and replaced with a white one, symbolizing purity. A special prayer service was held, as well as classes where we learned the details of how the shofar is blown, how one should respond to each distinct sound and how it became a tradition. There are several suggestions, including the comparison to a trumpet being sounded at a coronation (God as King holds special significance during this holiday), and the belief that the shofar will be blown at the resurrection (Rosh Hashanah is a fresh start spiritually, symbolic of a resurrection).
Yet Rosh Hashanah isn’t merely a time for personal reflection; it’s also a time when Jews see fit to heal and deepen relationships. This won’t be surprising to those who understand the inherent communal nature of Judaism and its lovely emphasis on “tikkun olam,” or healing the world. Judaism emphasizes practicality as well as inner growth and relationship with God.
This was brought home to me during a High Holy Day period which I spent with a Jewish Renewal group. Hesha, the student rabbi who led our “havurah,” or study group, explained to us that the Talmud lists four steps to “t’shuva,” or repentance: regret, abandonment, confession and resolve. Abandonment includes letting go of the fear of being completely honest with yourself, and confession includes–or may include–going to others and attempting to sooth conflicts and resentments.
The handout that Hesha gave us included a page in which we listed ways we’d “missed the mark” in our relationships. It was designed to actually give to another person, asking their forgiveness and suggesting a time when you might sit down with them to talk and heal.
Hesha’s family used these sheets among themselves, reflecting alone, then, some time between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, coming together two-by-two to “wipe out the schmutz of the year” and to start the New Year afresh.
Though I chose a less-direct approach, I did adhere to the spirit of the worksheet, looking deeply into my relationships and taking concrete, practical steps to heal any damage, and finding ways to make the relationships more loving and kind.
I also remember well another year, when I first became involved with Judaism. I had planned to celebrate Rosh Hashanah at a Hasidic synagogue, but I became confused by the Jewish calendar and showed up after the final service had ended. One young man had stayed behind to clean the synagogue, and when I entered, he put down his broom and came over to talk to me. “I was just going outside to look at the stars,” he said. “Come with me.”
In Judaism, the appearance of three stars signals the official beginning or end of a holiday or of the Sabbath. As we walked outside and stood gazing into the heavens, neither of us spoke. A powerful sense of holiness surrounded us, a stillness that was tangible in the peace it brought. To speak would have been to interrupt God. Rosh Hashanah may have been over, but it had left its sense of holiness behind. For it was a New Year, a fresh start, and a time of beginnings.
Mary Blye Howe is author of A Baptist Among the Jews. Information about purchasing the book is available on her Web site, www.maryblyehowe.com.