Rosh Hashanah, the first day of the year, is a holy day. As such, it is a day of joy, lavish meals and the like. At the same time, however, it is a solemn day – not because it contains an element of mourning, but because there is seriousness about it.
In the world at large the first day of the year is usually a day of festivity; it marks the beginning of a new time, and people want at least to believe that the coming year will be much jollier, much happier than the previous one, a year in which their wishes and dreams will be fulfilled.
Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, does indeed contain this element of festivity and hope, but it also has something more than that. Any day that is the beginning of a new cycle is also the conclusion of the previous cycle. Thus the first day of the year is, by definition, the summation of the year that has just ended. Indeed, the notion of Rosh Hashanah as a day of judgment is connected with this very idea.
The first day in the fiscal year, too, is a day in which one has to fully bear the results of what had transpired in the year before. And as is the case with financial reports, it is not just parallel columns of data: it evokes the ongoing understanding that the end of the outgoing year and the beginning of the incoming year are intertwined and interconnected.
The notion of judgment in this High Holiday says that one should make a summary of what has happened in the last year in order to begin the next year on a different footing. One should wait with some trepidation for the verdict on last year’s efforts, which may also be a foresight into the coming year.
The fact that the two days of Rosh Hashanah are part of the Ten Days of Awe does not mean that it is not a holiday, or that it is forbidden to rejoice in it: it just means that this holiday contains the element of awe because of the situation of being judged. This judgment, however, is not done in an ordinary court of law, and the reckoning involved is not just practical and financial: it is an all-encompassing overview of the past year.
People may surely wish that the next year will be happier in every way; that maladies will be healed, that financial problems will be worked out, that family troubles will come to an end and that far happier things will happen. People can have such wistful thoughts on any day of the year but combined with the “Day of Judgment” every wish that we make for ourselves and others is accompanied by a small voice piping: “And why would you deserve these good things?” Hence, the notion of repentance is built into the Day of Judgment – even though it may often be not unlike a statement made by a little child: “I was naughty, and I promise to behave myself from now on.”
* * *
Rosh Hashanah is also two-faceted in the sense that it is not only a day of personal reckoning but also a day that involves all of creation, and surely also the entire Jewish nation; everyone and everything are being judged at this time. Therefore, examining things in retrospect involves remembering not only personal misdeeds but also national ones. Furthermore, some of the personal resolutions made should involve not only one’s private life but also one’s relationship with everyone else.
There are surely many things that people can repent on, but there is one point of general importance that should be highlighted since it does not seem to be getting better in any way. Paradoxically, despite – or because of – the plethora of means of communication that are developing and multiplying exponentially, the inner, personal relationships with others keep diminishing. In many ways life in the city means being isolated within a huge crowd. We have less and less real connection with others, and most of the relationships we do have seem to become more mechanical and devoid of personal involvement. One can often see people sitting next to each other and communicating via their cellphones.
This dissociation of the individual from larger entities such as extended families, and even the core family, seems to be, perhaps, our gravest ailment. But we can still repent; we have not yet reached the point of no return, the point at which it is no longer possible to have any relationship with, or concern and empathy for others. We still can make our lives better and live in such a way that when the Good Lord comes to judge us He will not see mere specks of dust wafting in the emptiness. We may not be able to solve financial, social or national problems; they may be too big for us, or even insoluble. But we can still make some moves, originating from our inner selves, towards some kind of actual physical interaction with others. Let us begin, then, by uniting with close family members: parents, children, siblings. Let us at least make an initial attempt not just to get “status reports” about the others but also to feel and show a little bit of empathy, of care.