Rosh Hashanah means, literally, the Head of the Year, an idiomatic way of saying in Hebrew the beginning of a new year. The element of doubt in this idiom comes from the fact that the Mishnah devoted to Rosh Hashanah identifies four “heads of the year”. But it is clear that the one Rosh Hashanah the Jewish people know is the first of Tishri: the Day of Judgment, or the Day of Blowing the Shofar.
One name or the other suggests an ending of one cycle and the beginning of something new. As a court of law pronounces its verdict as final, or the public pronouncement (the sounding of the shofar) declares the coming of a novel beginning, so Rosh Hashanah is meant to prepare us for a new year.
In the new year, we are duty bound to forgo that which has passed and move on to a new state of being. This does not mean to forget what we have learnt in the past but rather to use that knowledge to address the new world around us. Rosh Hashanah tells us that we are going to find ourselves in a new situation, with new chall
enges and new solutions.
We are a people of models — but the models are not always efficacious. Promoting women in all walks of life except in the synagogue has become glaringly anachronistic. Similarly, praying for a Temple has little meaning, other than metaphor, ie the meaning behind the sacrifices is far more understandable and acceptable than actual sacrifices, which for most contemporary Jews is simply an outmoded form of worship. This is a further example of our refusal to move from set religious positions.
The righteous Jews who refused to defend themselves during Antiochus’s reign of terror, because of a fear of breaking the laws of the Sabbath day, were killed, along with their families. Only when Mattathias and his friends refused to accept this “because otherwise they will wipe us out completely”, did they resolve “to fight against every man who comes to attack us on the Sabbath day: let us not die as our brethren died in their hiding places” (First Book of Maccabees 2: 40-41).
The last phrase is perhaps the most pertinent. There are people who “hide”, afraid of the new situation into which they have been thrust, and therefore become stuck emotionally, psychologically, socially.
They cannot enjoy a new year, because for them it is just a repeat of the old year. They think they are living but, in truth, they are just going through the actions of other people. The Rebbe of Kotzk observed: “If you pray today because you prayed yesterday, then you haven’t prayed!”
Rabbi Shlomo of Radomsk sees Rosh Hashanah as a time to renew the pledge between God and His people, so that (as he says in Tiferet Shlomo al Hamo’adim) “each year returns to its primary source and awakens the creation of the world afresh.”