One year before Rosh HaShanah, I received an email from Nicole, a 24-year-old woman who was frustrated with her parents. They asked her if she planned on joining them for Rosh HaShanah. It was an innocent question. Nicole’s parents were just trying to make their plans. Well, that’s not how she took it!
“Dear Rabbi,” she wrote. “Why are my parents always pressuring me? I just don’t get this annual synagogue appearance they want me to make. Maybe it’s strange that I’m writing this to you but can you help get my parents off my back? Thanks, Nicole.”
I responded to Nicole that she should have gone to High Holy Day services simply to get her parents off her back!
For many of us, the main thing about Rosh HaShanah is seeing and being seen by one another. We discover that no one has gotten younger since last year. We notice the faces, the growth of children and grandchildren. We realize who’s not with us. And so it goes row-by-row, smiles of recognition, hugs of greeting or comfort. For many of us, the main thing about Rosh HaShanah is affirming who we are, and with whom we belong.
The Mahzor containing our words of formal prayer also represents this affirmation. Mahzor means cycle, the recurring and familiar patterns of every year. We greet this New Year with hope, as always. We hope to meet days of health and well-being, goodness and happiness. And then there are some things that we hope won’t repeat, like struggles with an illness or in our family. This past year may have been a hard one for many of us. I guess every year is for some. So most of all, we need this reminder.
To Nicole, however, I offered a deeper reason.
The story is told of a Hasidic rabbi whose child used to wander off to spend time alone in a forest. Concerned and curious, one day the rabbi pulled his boy aside to ask him what he was doing. “I go to the forest to find God,” said the boy. “That’s wonderful,” replied his father. “But you need not go to the forest to find God. Don’t you know that God is the same everywhere?” “God is,” the boy answered, “but I’m not.”
Nicole and all of us should be in synagogue during the High Holy Days because we are different here. Our language, our mood, our emotions are different here.
Here we come to remember that it is not because of us, but through us, that goodness comes into the world. It is not because of us, but through us, that caring comes into the world. It is not because of us, but through us, that compassion comes into the world. It is not because of us, but through us that righteousness-tzedakah, comes into the world. It is not because of us, but through us, that healing comes into the world. It is not because of us, but through us, that God comes into the world.
As Pirkei Avot declares, “It was not your will that formed you, nor was it your will that gave you birth; it is not your will that makes you live, and it is not your will that brings you death.”
On Rosh HaShanah we remind ourselves that with each passing year life and love are the greatest gifts we receive. Their value is measured in how we earn them and what we give back. It is not because of what we own, it is not because of what happens, but through what we do that we have value.
The day we stop being focused on ourselves is the day our lives start to matter. The moment we discover we are entitled to nothing is the moment we begin to appreciate what we have. That day our gratitude is greater than our greed, on that day, and at that moment, we become capable of understanding who we are in relation to everyone and everything else.
Toward the end of the 1998 film “Saving Private Ryan” a dying Captain John Miller played by Tom Hanks speaks to Private James Ryan played by Matt Damon. It appears that a wounded Captain Miller won’t survive his mission to rescue Private Ryan. Ryan looks at Miller, shaken and stunned as if asking how to say thank you. In his last breath, weakly, Captain Miller whispers, “James, earn this…earn it!”
At least once each year, if not more often, we must stop to hear these words about life’s gift. Not from a movie, but from the experience of prayer, ceremony, and community.
The High Holy Days celebrate our individual relationships with God. Unlike other Jewish holidays, Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur are not remembrances of our people’s past. When we gather for worship we celebrate the world’s existence. The Days of Awe are occasions on which we measure the direction of our lives. Once each year, Jewish tradition focused us on ourselves rather than upon our shared Jewish memories. Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur are about the moral me.
Our very being is a gift given to each us by God through our parents. It is given freely. Life’s value is measured in how we earn it. May this be part of our focus as we welcome in the New Year.