With Rosh Hashanah approaching, most of us are even busier than usual. Of course, much is different this year. We find ourselves with questions and doubts and uncertainties. We are faced with decisions that are difficult to make, about realities that are impossible to know. And yet… life goes on. With all the planning and preparing holiday meals, errands for the holiday, and calling friends and family to, we manage to absorb ourselves in the familiar, comfortable routine of the holiday season. Our wishes are probably more heartfelt this time around. Our blessings, even when using the same “Shanah Tovah” as every other year, contain more awareness, more empathy, more understanding of what we and others want and need.
Something about these season’s greetings hearkens me back to when life seemed much simpler. The innocence of it all might be part of it. Our blessings are not those of a righteous person, and despite that- maybe even because of that- the recipient is touched by our heartfelt words. In this way, our wishes are like the gift that a young boy crafts and presents to his mother, convinced it is a work of art; for his innocence and sincerity, perception becomes reality. His gift’s beauty is an amalgamation of caring, effort… and innocence; the child doesn’t notice the piece’s asymmetrical shape and thinks nothing of its uneven coloring. There is no concept of how it ‘should’ look or even of how his project differs from his classmates’; he is aware only that he created what his imagination told him to and in the way he knew how.
The belief that we place in the power of prayer and friendship in these days evokes a similar, long- disregarded perspective. As young children, anything was possible. There was no reason we couldn’t be firefighters and astronauts- and we were already pretty good as princesses and superheroes. Before expressions like ‘practical’ and ‘responsibilities’ hit our radars, our only limits were where our imagination ended. The ‘realities’ of adolescence and adulthood usually temper those unlimited dreams, and a person may lose his or her inspiration while progressing through life. One may grow more guarded after witnessing dishonesty, or become more cynical while learning of evil people and injustices. Perhaps weighed down further by some disappointments or missteps, it becomes easy to accept our limitations without a fight, to see the world as a bleak and unchanging place as routine slowly replaces optimism.
This innocence, though, resurfaces at the time that’s meant for renewal: Rosh Hashanah. As we accept to change, embracing renewed commitments to our values, we are actually expressing our faith in ourselves and in our ability to do big things. And although the most important aspect of this fresh perspective is the benefit of repentance, we can’t ignore the feeling of vitality it lends us. Innocence, openness, optimism- whatever you call it- gives everything around us renewed meaning and tangible significance. The details of the picture take on lives of their own, and the picture itself seems brighter, more alive. Our good wishes, then, give flight to hopes and dreams, and tap in to hope and faith that can get lost in the clutter of our lives. Now, more than ever, the blessings we offer one another remind us that hope is in fact logical, and that prayer is the best way to actually see the goodness that we just know is there, waiting.
And so, as life’s details come into fuller focus now, and after we finally exhale as the holiday sets in, we tiredly take satisfaction from what we have accomplished in the previous few days- and we remember…
We remember dipping a piece of apple into the honey as a six- year- old, and we remember the old men in our congregation who looked somehow different as they sat seriously on the benches. We remember events that seemed so important in their time and now only make us smile or shrug, and we also remember long- forgotten moments of greatness or tragedy that we appreciate from a better, higher vantage point.
If we merit to attend synagogue in person this year, we look around the just as the silent prayers begin, and we feel both inadequate and strong at the same time. We look towards the rabbi and the cantor and the shofar- blower, and we silently pray for their success- even when we may not realize it, nor even know what success we think of. We suddenly notice the huge weight that the rabbi seems to carry on his shoulders. We notice the trembling voice of a cantor who has led the services for decades, still crying as he prays that he be a fitting representative of the people. We notice the desperate yet determined look in the eyes of the shofar- blower.
Even if we are instead in backyards or living rooms, fields or parking lots, we feel the thoughts, the hopes and the dreams of our family and friends. While we want to be in our familiar and holy synagogues, we feel ready for the moment, primed for experiencing the holidays in a different way. The last few months have opened something inside of us that we haven’t tapped into in years- and sometimes decades. The real and deep feelings, the better vision, and the heightened sense of appreciation for life’s “smaller things” all give us the hope we should have felt all along. And as we take in these sights, so familiar yet not always seen, we understand the sense of renewal, the hope, that drives the rabbi, the cantor, the shofar blower, friends and family- and us. We sense deep down that we can always revisit this world and these raw feelings- if we only allow ourselves to.
And although things seem to move too slowly at times over the holiday, we realize that at the end it will have passed by too quickly. We know intuitively that when the holiday ends and we get back to our regular lives, we will probably allow ourselves to become too busy to think, soon moving too quickly to stop. This realization itself, though, must give us focus; as a sick man momentarily regaining consciousness strains himself to take in the details around him while he savors life itself, so do we internalize the moment. We don’t dismiss our emotions or our memories, we don’t minimize our inspirations or our resolutions, and we don’t ignore our feelings of inadequacy and strength. Instead, we take pride in our traditions and our faith, our religion and our families. We stand tall in our ability to face ourselves and our shortcomings, our failed tests and setbacks. We know that Rosh Hashanah brings renewal, an opportunity to correct ourselves when we still have time. We know that it is a time to look into our past- and into our present and our future. We know that Rosh Hashanah is a time to view others in a different light. We know it is a time to refocus our energy from others’ opinions to our own deep- rooted standards. We know and we remember, we gain strength and we look inward.
And deep down, often when we least expect it, we feel it. Perhaps it happens as we look around at our family or our photographs. Maybe it’s when the smell and feel of our worn holiday prayer books transports us back in time, or even as we fall asleep when the holiday is but a memory. At that moment, whenever it is, we know it suddenly: this is what life is all about.
Have a sweet new year!
Elli Schwarcz is an alumnus of the Toras Moshe, Ner Israel, and Carteret Yeshivos, and has been involved in Jewish outreach for almost 15 years. He is a Hebrew School and English Language Arts teacher, and has a Master’s Degree in Counseling from Johns Hopkins University. Of all his pursuits, Elli most enjoys teaching high-level Jewish thought and Talmud to teenage boys, exposing them to the beauty and wisdom of their heritage while highlighting their own ability to engage in advanced Torah learning. Elli lives in Lakewood, New Jersey, with his wife and children.