A New Year

Rabbi Jared H. Saks

from the Chadashot Newsletter, September 2017

At the ‘other’ new year that we mark, when we change the secular year at the stroke of midnight, I often remark that it is not on that day that I make resolutions, but rather on the new year that occurs in the autumn. While the passage of secular years are the ways in which I count my age, the years I’ve been married, even the time I’ve spent in this community, the passage of the Jewish years is how I count the impact of my life on the world in which I live. During Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, I consider the person I’ve been since I last asked to be sealed in the Book of Life and wonder if I’ve lived up to the ideals I have for myself and the expectations I have for others. Unsurprisingly, I’ve yet to achieve perfection for an entire year..

High Holiday Season is a liminal moment. We stand at the threshold, uncertain of what the year ahead has in store. Honestly, every moment is a liminal moment. In Pirke Avot, in the Mishnah, Rabbi Eliezer teaches:  “Let your friend’s honor be as dear to you as your own; be not easily provoked to anger; and repent one day before your death, every day, for you may die tomorrow.” Still, the Yamim Nora’im, the Days of Awe, stand as a stark reminder that we often fall short in being our best selves. Nonetheless, we have the power to change, especially if we pause in those liminal moments and engage in cheshbon ha-nefesh, an accounting of our souls.

In an essay in our new Machzor for the High Holy Days, Mishkan HaNefesh, Rabbi Laura Lieber[1] shares powerful words, some of which I’ve excerpted here. I encourage you to engage with the entirety of her words and the countless words in Mishkan HaNefesh when you join us for the High Holy Days in the weeks ahead.

My Experience of the High Holy Days is shaped by how they end:  the drama of heavenly gates—open for ten days, but now, at N’ilah, swinging shut, our prayers pelting up against them like pebbles… The potent image of a gate swinging shut has a counterpart in the liturgy:  the monumental Book of Life, also imagined as being shut—sealed for another year. But if we wish to find our way to and through the gate of N’ilah, it helps to travel back in time and revisit the intensifying routines of the Ten Days, the optimism of Rosh HaShanah, the gentle and insistent pleading of Elul. Our task is to gain entry, to pass through, to be transformed. Rosh HaShanah—the entire holy season—is more than sacred time. It is sacred space:  a threshold.

Doorways are charged spaces. We know intuitively that the world on one side of a door is different from the world on the other side. Inside-outside, nurture-nature, safety-danger, private-public:  any number of binaries are made real and concrete by the placement of a doorway. There is power and potential at the threshold, but also danger and vulnerability. Normally we give little thought to the doors and gates through which we pass, but the High Holy Days are different:  we construct an “existential doorway” and linger there for ten days of reflection.

At Rosh HaShanah we confront not only our responsibility for what we are able to do and change, but also how little control we have. We pass into the New Year regardless of our intentions or actions, haunted by the wrenching unsentimental picture painted by Unetaneh Tokef. Who shall live and who shall die? Who by fire and who by water? Who at ripe age and who far too young? Only repentance, prayer, and tzedakah can ameliorate the harsh decree. As we pass through the doorway, we feel, on a visceral level, the dangerous uncertainty of our lives:  despite our efforts, we may be found wanting, our acts deemed insufficient. A mirror hangs near this doorway that is Rosh HaShanah, inviting us to examine ourselves before we step over the threshold. We see for ourselves how frail and flawed we are. Scrutinizing our wrongs and misdeeds helps us to recognize them when they reappear, cleanse ourselves of them, and forgive them in others. We do well to look both ways before we cross over.

May this holiday season of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, of Sukkot and Simchat Torah, be one of joy for you and those whom you love. And may you be inscribed for blessing in the Book of Life.

-Rabbi Jared Saks

[1] Rabbi Laura Lieber, PhD, Pausing at the Threshold:  In Praise of Open Gates, Mishkan HaNefesh:  Machzor for the Days of Awe (Rosh Hashanah). New York:  CCAR Press, 2015, pp. xvi-xvii.

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