Guest Column by Rabbi Elimelech Gottlieb
A recently published article I read encouraged readers who attend synagogue only once a year to skip the High Holidays and find some other time to go. After all, if you are going to go annually, there are more believable, relevant and easily understood observances and holidays that are more positive choices.
All true. The advice is sound. If I have to pick one or two days to connect to Judaism, these seem to be better alternatives. There are plenty of heartwarming themes that don’t involve finger wagging, chest beating, and, of course, that oh-so-awful guilt.
What I would suggest is that Rosh Hashanah is the most thoroughly modern of all the holidays.
The three major festivals of Pesach, Shavuot and Sukkot-Shemini Atzeret are often grouped into one category, the shalosh regalim. This is popularly translated as the three festivals but alludes to the mitzvah of going to Jerusalem at these times.
They are connected in another significant way as well.
Pesach is about freedom. Wonderful. We love it. We get it: the Fourth of July with matzah. The second night of Pesach, though, we start counting up to the holiday of Shavuot, for which no date is given. We are commanded to observe it 50 days after Pesach.
These holidays are linked because Shavuot marks the acceptance of the Torah, which is where our freedom finds its purpose and destiny. As Rabbi Samson Rafael Hirsch puts it, Pesach is the physical creation of the people.
Sukkot, the harvest holiday, celebrates the physical nourishment of the nation but is immediately followed by Shemini Atzeret, which contains its spiritual sustenance.
These holidays are spiritual, historical and national.
But Rosh Hashanah is all about me. Quite the millennial message. Following the call of the shofar, we say, “Hayom haras olam”: Today is the birthday of the world. On this day a single, solitary person was created. It is the world’s birthday because it is for me that this universe came into existence.
In the quintessential Rosh Hashanah prayer, we say that every single person passes before G-d for inspection. It’s a little scary but also life-affirming. Rosh Hashanah infuses life and living with meaning and importance.
If we are individually scrutinized, it is because our lives matter, because everything and everyone is significant. Every individual is born with the potential to fulfill the purpose of creation.
Our global and technological world seems to hold more promise for freedom and prosperity than ever before, yet it often makes us feel small and insignificant. Rosh Hashanah elevates and inspires. Happy birthday.
Rabbi Elimelech Gottlieb is the interim head of school at Torah Day School of Atlanta.