In American culture, marking the New Year often means parties, champagne and resolutions to lose weight. It’s an all-out festive occasion, marking the end of the holiday season that began with Thanksgiving.
In the Jewish faith, things are a little different.
Starting this year at sundown on Wednesday, Sept. 28, the Jewish holiday of Rosh Hashanah (literally, the Head of the Year), is both the celebratory kickoff to an entire month of holidays and a solemn opportunity to reflect on the past year. Prayers and teachings related to the holiday frequently refer to a Book of Life, in which all those who will enjoy Divine favor in the coming year are written. Each person has the opportunity to improve his/her fate by engaging in teshuvah, repentance for sins and indiscretions and by working to improve.
Rosh Hashanah is considered the Day of Judgment for Jews, said Rabbi Moshe Herson, Dean of the Rabbinical College of America in Morris Township. This act of teshuvah prepares people for a “wholehearted return to our Father in Heaven, culminating on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement and Forgiveness.”
For many Jews, Rosh Hashanah and teshuvah are annual reminders of the possibility to renew relationships with God and with each other.
“The biggest thing for me as a Jew and as a human being is the fact that every moment is a chance,” said Rabbi Mark Biller of Adath Shalom in Morris Plains. “There is no moment where it’s game over–Judaism and Torah are about getting to somewhere and our lives are open-ended in a positive way.”
Teshuvah is a key element for Jews in getting to wherever they are going and classic Jewish texts list five steps for individuals to complete in order to achieve it: recognize the sin, show remorse, stop the sinful act, make restitution where possible and confess the sin. Teshuvah takes on a more tangible form with the tradition of tashlich wherein Jews gather near a body of water during the Rosh Hashanah holiday and literally cast away their sins by throwing small pieces of bread into the water.
“The concept of teshuvah/repentance is a notion of rebirth and Jewish text considers the repentant as though a new person has emerged,” said Rabbi Menashe East of Mount Freedom Jewish Center, in Randolph. “That I can repent means there is yet hope for me; that I can forgive means that there is yet hope for us.”
During the past year, anyone may have gossiped, been unkind to a friend or spouse, closed oneself off to the suffering of others, or lied. Yet with the coming of the New Year on Rosh Hashanah, every person gets a new chance to confront those behaviors and resolve to change for the better. It can be a bit overwhelming and Rabbi Biller recommends looking at each category of one’s life separately–love relationships, relationships with parents and children, honesty in business or learning–and finding one small way to improve in each. Then, check in every three or six months to see if real change has happened and if not, to try again.
Given all of the problems in today’s world including ongoing financial uncertainty, war and violence and corruption, it can be difficult for people to find the joy in Rosh Hashanah and the process of teshuvah.
“The norm of Jewish history has been upheaval and chaos, and that has made Rosh Hashanah, with its emphasis on our rebirth and our power to repent, an ever-salient message,” said Rabbi East. “Yes, the world around us crumbles, but the world inside us can remain intact. Repentance affirms the power of our soul and our human initiative.”
Family and friends can be powerful inspirations for repentance, provided individuals focus not on perfection, but on forgiveness and appreciation for what is good in each person.
“One of my highest goals is looking at how to grow and improve and facilitating other people to do the same,” Rabbi Biller said. “Rosh Hashanah is about looking at the world and seeing what can be different or better.”