Rosh Hashanah Drash

Rosh Hashanah 5771 September 8 – September 10, 2010

“The Time of Our Change”

by Rabbi Mel Gottlieb, PhD
President, Academy for Jewish Religion, CA (AJRCA)

The Hebrew word for year, Shana, as some of our Sages suggest, comes from the word ‘change,’ Shenui. Thus Rosh Hashana can be viewed as the ‘beginning of our change. The nature of life clearly presumes and demands change and choice, and this is our season to intensify this charge.

We must all ask the question what does G-d, or the whispers of our inner soul call us to do? This is not achieved by trying to figure it out by our rational analysis; it is reached by cultivating our ability to listen (Shma Yisrael) to the ‘call,’ to pay attention to what our soul feels drawn to as a result of the gifts that G-d has bestowed upon us, from an integration of the wisdom of the head with the knowledge of the heart. It often results from a life of frustration from material choices, and that suffering leads to a shift and a willingness to finally listen to the soul’s agenda.

One of the Rosh Hashana prayers ‘U’netaneh Tokef ‘(A not very popular prayer, ‘Who shall live and who shall die’), awakens us to our mortality and urges us to listen to the call right now. It reminds us that that life is a limited affair and the tomorrows that we plan for may not be there for us. So it is in this very moment, this year, that we are asked to do what we have always been called to do, and which we have avoided, to move from a wound identified human being towards a conscious, responsible one, to move us from relying on old ego certainties to a much larger reality. The errors that we have made may seem like barriers that will prevent us from achieving our goals, but they are also motivators to awaken us to the journey we were always meant to take. Adam too sinned and set off on a growth journey as a result. Mistakes cause suffering, but they can also lead to meaning. Sometimes our losses open us up to a whole new perspective. So they become gifts. They can lead us to a truth that on Rosh Hashana we can find. We have discovered what our souls call us to do, and we will now begin to do it. And we will be judged not only by the kindness of our heart, but also by the depth of our courage.

On Rosh Hashana we are called to HONESTLY engage with the questions of life rather than attempt to content ourselves with answers that do not resonate with our inner soul voice, otherwise we will live a life of ‘quiet desperation.’ Relinquishing the security we have struggled to attain may be very frightening, but not as devastating as leaving behind the unique person we were called to be. The terror of change is compensated by meaning. The soul has its need for meaning, which is not served by power or recognition or even belonging. Accordingly, there may be times when we are painfully called upon to differentiate our inner knowing voice from the collective, or the demands of loyalty from our inner parent or tribe. This is far more difficult than living with the blessing of harmony within one’s community.

And yet how few of us implement the contemplated change that emerges on Rosh Hashana. We remain the same year after year. Something creeps in that we call resistance, or the Yetzer Hara, or what Freud called ‘thanatos-the death wish.’ There is something within human nature that wants to avoid stress and return to a state of rest, quiescence (repetition compulsion). We do not want to commit ourselves to something that pulls us out of our comfort zone. We do not wish to take on life as a development, we would rather see it as fixed; we are not prepared to see life as a series of deaths and rebirths, but would prefer to dwell in the known and comfortable. So on Rosh Hashana we are opened up to the fullness of the journey, that life contains change, and it is a positive. Hashem created us with a Yetzer Tov (Freud’s eros) as well as a Yetzer hara; within us is the desire to grow and risk and search for meaning, as well as remain the same. This is called Penitence (Teshuvah). ‘And once there is the reaching for penitence there is the reality of penitence!’ (Rav Kook). Rosh Hashana is the time to experience this growth journey and be awakened to the Yetzer Tov – our Soul’s desire to grow up, to go with movement; and once we enter this commitment (Teshuva) G-d helps us by manifesting Presence. If we can align ourselves with this truth, no matter how difficult the challenges of the world, we will feel healing, hope and a new life, we will feel G-d’s Presence right along with us. In the exhilaration of growth, or spirit energy, we will forget our ‘small selves’ and enter a zone that is far larger. It is my experience (for example when I am teaching a beautiful piece of Torah) that when we are following our ‘call,’ we lose our self consciousness, our separateness, lose our awareness of time and solitude, and we just move through time till we are called back to ‘dinnertime.’ But this state of being necessitates a continual reinforcement of daily mitzvah practice. Choosing an alternative vision of life is a matter of learning to see and hear differently, to live differently. This takes constant effort, a daily practice of prayer, study and good deeds. Every day must be a Rosh Hashana, a Rosh Shinui.

May this Rosh Hashana teach us that we must yield to the inevitable rhythm of the lifespan which is filled with development and change. And though we may never ABSOLUTELY know what our specific, mysterious journey is about on this earth (Sfat Emet, Vayichi), we are still called to live it with courage and joy. V’kain Yhi Ratzon!

Shana Tova.