Often when parents send their children off into the fracas of life, they dispatch them with the warning: “Be careful and use your head.” But isn’t that advice all rhetoric and trite? What else would we use to engage life? Our toes? Our elbows? It is only as we grow older that we realize what we once deemed as a parental platitude is wisdom that no sophist can equal. For even though the head sits as the crown of the body, for most people it is every other body part that actually rules. Our palates salivate, so we grab for the extra cookie; our eyes desire, so we spend beyond our means; our desires flare, so we reach for the forbidden; our legs grow weary, so we abandon the treadmill; our tongues grow restless, and so we unfurl gossip. Day in and day out we respond to the dictates of the body, but the head, the supposed capitol of our resolve, our will, our better judgment, well, it seems to be a silent partner. But as the New Year approaches that farewell warning our mothers and fathers gave us while standing by the front gate should echo with solemnity: USE YOUR HEAD!
On Rosh Hashanah, too, we stand before a gate, the Heavenly Gate of God, which is wide open to hear our prayers of repentance and our beseeching for health, wealth and life. We have big plans for the year ahead and we supplicate our Maker until the holy gate closes. Then we pivot back to our lives, and as we are ushered out of the synagogue God tells all his children: “Use your head.”
Rosh Hashanah, is not translated as “New Year” for really there is nothing “new” about it if tomorrow we behave the same as we did yesterday. But rather, it is translated as “head” of the year; for just as the head is the command center that directs the rest of the body so, too, Rosh Hashanah can be the command center that will tell the rest of the year what to do. On no other day are Jews more humble, afraid, repentant, well-intentioned, resolved, regretful, hopeful, beneficent and primed for change. The year ahead is replete with potential. But it depends on one thing. Will you take the potency of Rosh Hashanah with you into the New Year or will you, like so many children, leave your head at home and go into the New Year with just your feet? (In fact the Hebrew word for foot, regel, has the same root word as the Hebrew word ragil, which means like usual.) And the lesson is we can’t let our feet lead as usual if we want to do be a victor of habit instead of its victim.
Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah may effectively bleach your sins and failings, but they cannot correct why you faltered to begin with. Unless we take a reckoning with the “whys?” we will forge forward not with a clean slate but rather with a tie-dyed start.
And so, on these auspicious days, we are provided with a God-blessed opportunity and responsibility to assess ourselves with diligence. You see, yesterday is not something to run away from like a mugger trying to take something from you, rather it’s a guru with something great to give you and teach you if you are ready to learn. And tomorrow is not something to run toward while wearing yesterday’s muddy shoes, while consorting with yesterday’s bad friends, while going to yesterday’s bad hangouts, while sticking to yesterday’s unhealthy schedule, and while pursuing yesterday’s noxious entertainment.
We start out with good intentions and yet we are told that God doesn’t recognize the Jewish people from one Yom Kippur to the next. The pure souls that left the synagogue a year earlier have returned in a blemished state one year later. And I cannot help but think of the fish heads and goat heads which symbolically grace Rosh Hashanah tables around the world and wonder at what point did we too lose our heads along the way? Our parents’ words echo once again: “If your head wouldn’t be screwed on, would you lose that too?”
Friends, now is the time to barge into our own lives screaming like a dissatisfied customer and demand to know: Who is in charge here, our head or our feet? And I just pray that in one year from now, when God greets us once again at His Gates of Judgment, He will say, “Children, I’m so proud of you. You really have a head on your shoulders.”