Rosh Hashanah translates as “the head of the year,” the start of the new calendar cycle but also the two holy days that contain a microcosm of everything that the upcoming year will hold. Like the head itself, which controls all the functions of the body, the head of the year contains all the potential of the months to follow, encouraging us in prayer and contemplation to start the year off on the right foot. We eat sweet foods, dipping apples in golden honey and sampling new fruits that hint to the newness and abundance of the year ahead. This is a moment for setting intentions for who and how we want to be in the world, for asking for the deepest wishes of our hearts, and for joyously strengthening our commitment to our community.
For these same reasons, Rosh Hashanah is also a solemn holiday. Prayer and self-reflection make for solemn work. We contemplate our successes and failures, endeavor to make amends for our shortcomings and have a private conversation about our spiritual potential in whatever ways we find meaningful. This one-on-one attention inward and outward, including from and with the Divine, we are compelled to reflect also on how to intervene and request the best year for our community as a whole.
The Talmud teaches that each individual is responsible for their brothers and sisters: “Kol Yisrael areivim ze la’ze.” We are each charged with the obligation to care for, pray for, and support the members of our community in a way usually reserved for family and close friends. Their well being should be at the top of our list of priorities, and no private spiritual striving should outpace our concern for the nitty-gritty needs of our peers.
At the start of the mussaf service on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, the baal tefilah, leader of the service, begins with the “Hineni” prayer. This is a unique and traditional liturgical example of the leaders standing vulnerable before God in full view of the congregation, beseeching God to overlook their very human flaws and errors and allow them to represent the congregation in prayer. We each bring our unique set of experiences to these holy days: our own patterns of behavior, past regrets, human imperfections. But like the baal tefilah, we ask God that these do not disqualify us from our own prayers and our earnest requests on behalf of the holy congregation.
A tale is told of a renowned leader of a Chassidic community who was found absent for the Kol Nidre prayers. Some townsfolk were worried, some were indignant—how could the rabbi have missed this service, this unique time of year when the gates of Heaven open to receive our Yom Kippur prayers? A humble follower of the rabbi revealed the answer. He related that just as the holiday was beginning, he witnessed the rabbi walking to synagogue, when the rabbi paused outside a home where he heard a woman crying within. After knocking on the door, the rabbi discovered that the woman had just given birth and had no wood for her fire and no one to warm food to sustain her. Without hesitation the rabbi got to work, cutting wood for her hearth and cooking her a warm meal to help her regain her strength. The congregation was dumbfounded. To cut wood and cook a meal on Yom Kippur was surely forbidden, not to mention far below the station of the leader of the community! But the lesson was priceless and clear; no task is too lowly, too mundane, when a fellow human being is in need.
This theme can be present in our own traditions this Rosh Hashanah, as we take a moment to think about who in our community can benefit from our prayers and how, through our actions, we can be of help to those acquaintances in the coming year. Even as we hold our own individual spiritual conversations, like the leader of the service we can ask that our prayers be heard for our friends, family, and community members regardless of our own past failings and challenges. As we break open a pomegranate or pull a slice of raisin challah from a fresh-baked loaf, we can take a moment to be present for all those around us, praying that we all receive abundance in the year ahead.
Wishing you a Shana Tova, a new year full of sweetness, unity, and blessing.