Rosh Hashanah, Freedom, and the New Year

Taking a short break again from the ongoing series of articles on “start-up” synagogues and the Jewish community, I want to talk a bit about Rosh Hashanah from a humanistic Jewish perspective. Or rather, the post will be more in the spirit of Rosh Hashanah than about the celebration itself.

The traditional approach to Rosh Hashanah is not what I would call a liberating one. It begins the ten Days of Awe, when traditionally Jews would atone for their transgressions against themselves, others, and God. The greeting of “L’shanah tovah” (literally, for a good year) is abbreviated, and “L’shanah tovah u’metukah” (literally, for a good and sweet year) is a little more modern.  The full traditional greeting is “L’shanah tovah tikateivu v’teichateimu.” It means, “may you be inscribed and sealed for a good year.”

“Inscribed and sealed” in what, you ask? Why, the Book of Life, of course. Instead of the Book of Death. Because the traditional U’netanah Tokef prayer includes the verses:

On Rosh Hashanah it is written, and on Yom Kippur it is sealed;
How many will pass on, and how many will be created:
Who will live, and who will die;
Who in less than his allotted time, and who in his allotted time

The poem goes on to list the many ways one might die in the coming year, and declares that repentance, prayer, and righteousness can alleviate the harshness of the decree.

This isn’t exactly what I would call liberating, and our greetings for Rosh Hashanah have been abbreviated so that we don’t acknowledge what is at issue, according to the tradition: repentance, and our very survival. And on the traditional reading, our survival may only be assured by keeping the commandments, assuming we aren’t otherwise slated to die in the coming year.

Is it any wonder we don’t use the full greeting very often?

What does a humanistic Jewish version of this look like? It focuses on our selves and our relationships with others–restoring and renewing both. The blast of the shofar serves as much purpose for the humanist Jew as for any other: it calls us to account for the prior year.

Except we are the ones keeping score, and we are the ones empowered to make changes. That is a powerful idea, whether one believes in one god, 300 million gods, or none at all. Because, whatever your beliefs, you cannot truly know a divine plan, if you think one exists at all; you can only believe in the existence of a plan.

You can, however, reflect and act. A humanist Rosh Hashanah rejects the fetters of self-imposed, yet otherworldly bonds, and challenges us to look to ourselves and our world for answers.

What have you done that you should or should not have? Who are you that you should or should not be? What do you see that should or should not be? And what can you do to continue, discontinue, or change what you find?

Have I been a patient-enough husband and father? Supportive enough? Attentive enough? I have tried to be better this year than last, but I know I haven’t met my own standards.

Have I been engaged enough in my community? In my profession? In my religious community? To be honest, by engagement in professional and community activities has diminished. My religious activities are picking up, however, and I think it’s there that I will find the most traction and the most personal fulfillment.

What I am, as a humanist Jew, is free to consider these and to know–based upon myself, my family, and my communities–where my priorities are and should be, and to determine how to bring about improvement without guilt or pain except as the facts require.

That realization has made me feel remarkably more free–Jewishly free–than I have in a long time. And so, may the shofar’s blast next year find me better, and still more free.

And so, intentionally omitting the rest of the greeting: L’shanah tovah u’metukhah.