Opinion Articles

Rosh Hashanah: The Personal and the National

The Jewish calendar should guide our lives not only as individuals and a community, but also as a society and a state. If we want to preserve our identity as a distinct cultural and national group, we must make the effort to shape the cycle of time in our own way.

In our daily lives, the clock is set to global time, connecting us with the world and putting aside the particular, the local, and the traditional. But this process is not a total one. In Israel, it is precisely the greatest moments of our lives which are set according to the Jewish calendar. Very soon, September 10 will don the special festivity of the first of Tishrei, a time of introspection and summing up, a time of hopes and promises. January 1 is at best a time for parties and reviews of the past year’s top stories. Rosh Hashanah, by contrast, gets under your skin: “This is the day the world was conceived,” in the words of the liturgy.

The Jewish calendar should guide our lives not only as individuals and a community, but also as a society and a state. If we want to preserve our identity as a distinct cultural and national group, we must make the effort to shape the cycle of time in our own way.

The Jewish calendar, running from Tishrei to Elul, is a wonderful remedy for two of the main problems of Israeli society. The first — is that of divisiveness and isolation: we do so very little together! The chasms between identity groups and interest groups are deep and chronic. The Jewish calendar creates unifying group experiences which we can all share. Ultraorthodox and secular Jew, settler and Tel Avivian, rich and poor—on the first night of the new year they all dip an apple in honey; on Yom Kippur they all take a break from their daily lives; on Hanukkah they all light candles; and in the middle of the month of Nisan some 90% of us sit down at a seder table. This is extremely effective group therapy, preserving us as a united national and cultural entity.

The Jewish calendar provides us also with a remedy to a second problem, that of cultural assimilation. We all know that the world has become flat: the same goods are sold in Florida, London, and Kiryat Shmona. The products with which we are flooded by the media, too, are the same everywhere. What, then, allows us to remain ourselves? Part of the answer lies in the calendar. The Muslim calendar is based wholly on the moon; the Christian calendar, on the sun. But the Jewish calendar is a fascinating combination of the two cycles: the months are taken from the moon, but the year as a whole— from the sun. The cycle by which we live is our own—unique. As a result, even though the stock exchanges in New York, Hong Kong, and Frankfurt will be open for business on the first of Tishrei, ours will be closed. What is a regular business day for the whole world, from Silicon Valley to the rice paddies of China, will give way in Israel to a “voice of thin silence that makes the angels tremble” (Yom Kippur liturgy).

We are accustomed to focus our experiences as Jews in the individual, family, or community arenas. There are very few collective Jewish experiences that are national and shared by all Jews. This probably stems from the fact that our traditions took shape during the two thousand years of exile, when we existed as small and scattered communities, with no organizing national framework. But this changed with the national rebirth, when a Jewish public space was created—the State of Israel. This space calls out to us and asks us to charge it with Jewish content. This is a weighty mission: we need to translate key items of the tradition from the individual and community levels to the national. This is a creative venture that demands broad shoulders and much inspiration. This is true each and every day, and especially on the High Holy Days.

Our public life is stormy. Our national agenda is overflowing with more fateful issues than in any other place. But the High Holy Days open a hidden door to a different way of conducting ourselves—a sort of bubble in time, a unique and special moment when the urgent and pressing give way to the moderate and deep. In our daily race there is always a good reason to engage with the world, to live with constant “noise” in the background–information, interests, activity, and the need to get the job done. We are like a giant shark that has to always be in motion in order to survive. We move–therefore we exist. It is only on rare occasions that we have an opportunity to live the national moment with a broad perspective, to look into our souls calmly and deliberately , to set aside, even if “just for a moment,” all the explanations and self-justifications, the “how much” and “how,” and focus instead –on why we are and where we are going. The Jewish time that is about to bring us to the High Holy Days—the Days of Awe—is intended to introduce an external perspective into our daily routine. It is as if we are taking a step off the beaten path and looking back at the road we have traveled, and ahead– at the journey we are still planning to make.

Many of us personally experience this miracle— that when these fixed dates on the Jewish calendar—the Days of Awe—arrive, we are able to enter the mindset that allows us to engage in self-reckoning and soul-searching. May we be able to replicate this mindset as a community and as a nation as well. I wish a good year to all the House of Israel and to all mankind.

The article was first published in the Jerusalem Post