Yes, I said it. And I’m not making this up – it’s in the Tanach (Hebrew Bible). In the eighth chapter of the Book of Nehemiah, Rosh Hashanah is described as a day of “great joy.” The people even feasted and sent gifts to each other, which makes it sound more like Purim than the oh-so-serious Day of Judgement that we know today.
If your experience of Rosh Hashanah is anything like mine, this may strike you as strange. Growing up, I would stand outside shul for hours schmoozing with whoever was around, delighted to be missing the ominous proceedings within.
Whenever I did venture inside, I was struck by the heaviness of the mood and the words being recited. Nobody was smiling. The Day of Judgement did not appear to be very much fun, nor very inviting.
That kind of joyless Jewish observance was part of the reason I left Jewish practice behind altogether for a few years. Eventually I came back, in large part because I was fortunate to experience the opposite: Jewish practice imbued with joy and meaning, which connected me more to myself, others and all of life.
Over the years, I’ve discovered that Nehemiah isn’t the only source that discusses Rosh Hashanah in joyful terms. Many of our early rabbinic texts talk about the judgement that occurs on the festival as a foregone conclusion, for example:
What nation is like this nation, that knows the nature of her G!d?! Usually, when a person must appear before the court, they wear black clothing, cover themselves in black, and let their hair grow and nails grow, for they do not know the outcome of the judgment. But not so Israel, who wear white [clothing], wrap themselves in white, cut their hair and nails, and eat and drink and rejoice on Rosh Hashanah, knowing that the Holy One, blessed be He, does miracles for them and produces a favorable judgement for them, tearing up their decree of harsh judgement (Yalkut Shimoni, Deut. 825).
So the verdict is guaranteed in advance; we’re bound to be pardoned!
And this pardon is no whim, but reflects an important element of human existence. As another midrash argues, how can we possibly be blamed for our human failings, when we are the product of Divine creativity? Surely G!d is responsible for our shortcomings, not us! (See Exodus Rabbah 46:4).
Does this mean the entire idea of judgement is completely redundant and irrelevant? I don’t think so. I’ve come to see that it is still healthy and helpful, in fact deeply necessary, to assess where one stands once a year, to step outside of our usual process of constant growth and change and step into a different realm.
Our tradition calls this realm the Garden of Eden, the garden of eternity, a place outside of time, where we can tap into the ultimate story of our lives as it stands right now. In other words, if we were to drop dead at this moment, what would our obituary say?
From that mysterious place, outside of the flow of time as we usually experience it, we can tap into the invitation of Rosh Hashanah: to embrace judgement, not for its own sake, but for the sake of creation.
And what is being created on Rosh Hashanah?
Well, actually, everything.
But most crucially for us: Ourselves.
Just as Shabbat offers us a weekly opportunity to stop, reset our beings and begin again with renewed energy, Rosh Hashanah offers the same thing but on a far grander scale, should we choose to engage with it.
That Garden of Eden we can step into is nothing less than a womb for the self we want to birth as this new year begins.
Whether you spend the New Year inside a shul, schmoozing outside of one, or somewhere else altogether, Rosh Hashanah’s invitation is open to each of us to create ourselves anew, to start all over again.
And what could be more joyful than that?