Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Rosh Hashanah musings in the middle of the night

I don't know what it is about Rosh Hashanah eve, but it seems that all this reflection and awe of the annual Day of Judgement and Remembrance puts me in the mood to write, and seems to give me a little more clarity than usual, well, at least it seems that way at 2am.

I put it down to all the extra time in the kitchen - just me and my thoughts, and a routine of traditional dishes to cook surrounded by sweet spices and honey. My hands do the work while my mind wanders off in a cloud of cinnamon, cloves, cardamom and cumin.

A lot of folks and a lot of cultures relate to the New Year more as a time of partying and celebration, and I guess there is something of that tension in Rosh Hashanah. Yes. it is a festival with special delicious sweet foods, a time for family to be together, a time to welcome the New Year with joy and special treats.

More than that though it is a time for stock taking of the soul, for reflection and sincere soul searching. Not for nothing we blow the shofar, the ram's horn, during the long, extended Rosh Hashanah synagogue services. It's stirring, jarring sound is meant to shake us from the reverie of routine, to remind us that the time is now, Rosh Hashanah is already here, wake up, look within you, make the change, seize the day for new beginnings, for being a better person, for repairing the error of your ways.

This is also a time for forgiveness with no questions asked, a time when we are commanded to go to our friends and family and sincerely apologise for the hurt that each one of us has caused, whether unintentionally or in a rash moment of anger or thoughtlessness. For old friends to renew neglected contacts and those who have feuded or grown apart to seek reconciliation and restore friendships.

Not for nothing is this time in the Jewish year called the Days of Awe (Yamim Noraim). Jewish tradition holds that the world was born on Rosh Hashanah. In the Rosh Hashanah prayer service there is the phrase "Today is the birthday of the world, today all the creatures of the world stand in judgement".

Another traditional Rosh Hashanah prayer describes how all the world is judged by God on this day, passing before Him like sheep, one by one. We pray that all will be inscribed in the book of life, that our good deeds will be found to be as numerous as the seeds of a pomegranate, and yet we know, that as people, we are imperfect, we are not good at suppressing that evil inclination which makes us, even the best and holiest of us, do wrong. And so we also pray that if our merits are in short supply, at least we can fall upon divine mercy.

True repentence, prayer and tzedakah (charity and justice, depending on how one translates it) can help. It is not that they pacify God, it is that they make us better people, make us refocus our lives to fulfill the divine commandments to emulate God's mercy and kindness. That, after all is Rosh Hashanah. To make us take a step back from the humdrum routine and improve ourselves, so that we might do our part to make this troubled world a better place.

God judges us, but the free will that He gave us also means that it is up to us as well, and whether we take the experience of Rosh Hashanah and use it to truly start afresh and make a positive difference in the coming year.

Look back over the last year, cast your gaze around the troubled globe and tremble at how much can happen in 12 months. Look forward and tremble for what may yet come.

There is nothing like living in the Middle East to add extra sincerity and dedication in one's prayers, I imagine that living on the slopes of a volcano might induce a similar degree of piety. A glance at the headlines from the last week of the year is enough to focus anyone's prayers.

Hard to believe that a year has gone by since last summer's war and aftermath. For Israelis, more than ever, it was a year of soul searching, of the Winograd inquiry into the how the war was conducted, of questioning whether we have lost our way, or whether Israeli has lost that spark that has saved our nation time and time again.

A year has passed an still on a national level it seems that things have stood still. The same government is still in office, despite Winograd, despite protests. Kassams continue to rain down on Sderot and the north-west Negev and the government continues to make uncertain noises in response. Tension with Syria remains, a little heightened, but last summer wasn't exactly calm. The tension over Iran's intentions remains. Lebanon still teeters on the brink of more civil unrest. Yes sir, the synagogues should be extra full this year.

And yet, and yet, somehow living on the slopes of the volcano we take all this in our stride. We have faith that somehow we'll work our way out, muddle through, however incompetent our government seems, however much the odds seem to be stacked against us.

May we all be inscribed in the book of life, for health, for happiness and for peace.

Shana tova.