By Rabbi Binyomin Friedman | Congregation Ariel
High Holidays again. Same old, same old — especially if you go Orthodox. Same shofar, same cantor, same choir, same prayer book. Same Torah reading, same songs. Even the same sermon — or at least so it seems.
In an Orthodox synagogue the rabbi will probably speak about G-d as King and/or about repentance. This is somehow illustrated by the shofar, with a feel-good story to sweeten it all up. How did we get stuck in this place while time has been marching on? I would offer the very name “Rosh Hashanah” as an explanation.
The Midrash tell us that G-d created the world in Hebrew. That is curious. Did G-d really audibly say, “Let there be light”? If so, who heard it?
What this Midrash is really telling us is that the Hebrew language contains the keys to understanding the essence of creation. Many Hebrew words have multiple meanings. All of the meanings of a given word when taken together reveal its truth and, oftentimes, very sublime messages.
Let’s look at the word shana, as in Rosh Hashanah. The most popular understanding of the word shana is “year.” However, shana also means “repeat” and “change.”
Repeat and change seem to be opposites. Things that change cannot truly repeat. How does one word have opposite meanings?
Our sages teach that the Torah does not view time as linear but rather as circular. What goes around really does come around. The same seasons and the same holidays and birthdays and events come our way in the same sequence. Shana is a unit of time repeating itself.
On the other hand, at the height of the High Holiday services we recite a prayer called Unesaneh Tokef. You are probably familiar with the end of this prayer: “Who will live and who will die,” etc.
In this prayer we are told that on Rosh Hashanah we pass before G-d on an incline. This is referring to the belief that a Jew does not experience life on a level plane but rather is always going up or down. In essence, time is like a cylinder, with each of us spiraling up or down it.
With this insight we understand why a shana is a year that repeats from an external perspective yet changes from a personal perspective. A cycle of repeat and change equals a year, and Rosh Hashanah is the beginning of a new cycle.
Same-old, same-old world — but a new me, hearing the shofar and cantor and choir for the first time from this new place. From my new perspective, it is a new prayer book and a new Torah reading and new songs.
As for the sermon? It might be the same, but it is being delivered by a “brand new” rabbi and heard for the first time by the new you. Why bother changing the props when the new audience has not seen it yet?
So before you arrive in synagogue this Rosh Hashanah, your assignment is to take stock of this past year and all of its events and experiences. Then, go to synagogue ready to experience something you have never seen before.
Wishing you a shana (repeat and change) tova of goodness.
Rabbi Binyomin Friedman is the spiritual leader of Congregation Ariel.