Making Rosh Hashana 2020 A Meaningful Experience

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The question buzzing in our community this year is, “What’s happening with the High Holy Days this year?” We know that it is going to be different and unprecedented. Restricted seating in shul; social distancing; mask wearing; inability to offer (or accept) home hospitality; shortened services of a new format and not being able to sing along with the familiar tunes. The changes are unsettling for many, yet it is some ways inspiring to recognise the yearning we all have to reconnect at this special time. Sometimes we only appreciate the true value of something when it is taken away from us. Perhaps our mindset needs to move away from the passive, ‘What will happen to me’ to a proactive question of ‘How can I make this Rosh Hashana a meaningful experience?’ 

No one could possibly have anticipated last when we stood in shul for Rosh Hashana, the year that would lie ahead of us. The Covid-19 pandemic has shaken our sense of confidence and certainty. Since March, rather than thinking and planning ahead, we have focused our energies on isolating and maintaining a semblance of survivor mode: doing what was necessary to cope and emerge through an evolving ‘new-normal’. In the process we have discovered inner strengths, creatively found the answer to situations which confronted us and recognised the beauty and gift of mindfulness: ‘Yesterday’s history. Tomorrow’s a mystery. Today is a gift. That’s why it’s called the present’.

With the Yamim Noraim before us, we have the opportunity to be cognisant of the journey and not the destination. To challenge ourselves to grow and prepare ourselves meaningfully and not simply arrive at Rosh Hashana. Public guidance is changing all the time as fears of a second wave grow. Communities may be in a state of hiatus when it comes to planning scaled-back services and shofar blowing. More than ever, there is a need for inspiration to make this year’s Rosh Hashana meaningful.

The word corona (as in Coronavirus) comes from the Latin word for crown. On Rosh Hashana we proclaim Hashem as King. We enter into the holy court for a private audience with the King to review our life trajectory and to determine how well we have managed to stay on track with our specific mission. We recognise that He created and continues to rule the entire universe for the very purpose of us having a relationship with Him. A king needs subjects and there can be no king without a nation. Hashem looks for our merits and helps steer us back on course.

It’s been challenging to meaningfully connect to Hashem in prayer through lockdown. We find it hard to articulate what we want to say when the very things we took for granted are no longer a given. It’s possibly no coincidence that Rosh Hashana falls on Shabbos this year. The absence of the shofar’s call will echo the silence of those who are ill and those who we have lost as well as those who are suffering isolation and loneliness.

I would like to offer a few practical suggestions of how we can prepare for and enhance our experience of Rosh Hashana. 

  1. Creating lists, ideally written down but otherwise even a mental list is a useful introspective process. Not lists of recipes or cooking ingredients or shopping lists (interestingly many people consider cooking and baking to be their sole preparation for the yomim tovim) but rather lists for each of the following:
    • Gratitudes: enumerate the many blessings we have in our lives. Thank Hashem for bringing us to this moment, for the gift of life, for those people who are are close to us and why they means so much to us – parents, siblings, spouse, children, grandchildren, neighbours, teachers, friends. For our opportunities and achievements and areas of personal growth
    • Our Tools: these are the gifts and talents which Hashem gave us to achieve our life goals. Allow yourself the opportunity to identify what things are inside your custom tool box and celebrate them. Let’s also consider how these may be of used to help those around us: our families, community, shul and ourself. This year we should emphasize creating happiness, focusing on the good things in our lives, and sharing them with our families and friends. 
    • Refocusing: areas we wish to work on and refine in ourselves. Consider something specific and tangible like time-keeping, organisation, the way we use communication
    • Requests: things we want Hashem to bless us with for the coming year- personally and those who are close to us. Good health, happiness, peace of mind. sustenance and success with our work and relationships.
  2. Familiarise yourself with your machzor before Rosh Hashana. Use some index tabs or post-it notes to easily find key prayers (Avinu Malkeinu, Shema and Amidah). Read the English translation and possibly identify some key Hebrew words or phrases. Perhaps make a note for the front of your machzor with page numbers for your selection.
  3. Treat yourself to a new Jewish book which brings you inspiration and insight or prepare for Rosh Hashana by printing off some articles, stories and divrei Torah to inspire you or to share at the Yom Tov table. Things that you can dip in and out of, helping to keep your thoughts in the spirit of the day.
  4. Create a hand-designed Shana Tova greeting card for someone who will be spending Rosh Hashana alone. Include a personal message and convey warmth and blessing. Include a jar of honey, bottle of grape juice or some wrapped treats.
  5. Treat yourself to something new to wear for Rosh Hashana – like a new necktie, shoes or a set of earrings. Have them in mind when you make your blessing of Shehechiyanu and wear them in good health!
  6. Make pre- Rosh Hashana phone calls to wish your family and friends Shana tova. Use your own words to bestow heart-felt blessings and wishes for the coming year
  7. Prepare some special foodsBake or buy some round challahs and honey cake; and consider preparing and reading up about the simanim (special signs) including the head of a fish, pomegranate seeds and apples dipped in honey. Based on puns and word play- we eat these preceded by a heartfelt prayer connected to the character of the food. Some home-grown family favourites include Achva sesame seed snacks, “May we halva good year!” and Israeli soup croutons, “May we have an Osem start to the New year!”
  8. Enquire about timings for shofar blowing in your neighbourhood. 
  9. Prepare your yom tov candles; make note of candle lighting times and keep a list of people to include in your prayers as you light your candles to welcome Rosh Hashana.
  10. Allowing space and time for reflection. This can be facilitated by sitting in a quiet space in your home, on the patio or balcony. In the busy humdrum of modern living, it can be useful to allow ourselves the permission to simply be, enjoying solitude and the time to process our thoughts. Leave distracting concerns to one side. 
  11. Take a walk. This is a perfect way to break up the day and allow yourself the chance to pray silently and have a private dialogue with Hashem. Walk in your garden, in your neighbourhood or in an accessible open space. Consider a driveway or window visit to someone shielding at home. Perhaps let them know in advance that you’d planning on coming and arrange a mutually convenient time.
  12. Listen to the shofar. Be mindful of your breathing and the gift of life as you hear the sounds emanate from the shofar. The Hebrew word for ‘soul’ is neshama, which shares the same root as the Hebrew word for breath, neshima. Allow the sound to penetrate your hearts to hear its message. Feel a sense of gratitude for life and the ability to breathe and allow the shofar to help direct us back home.
  13. Being mindful of your firsts– Remind yourself and those around you to set the tone of the way that you begin the year by taking particular care with the way you do each activity for the first time. With purpose, clarity and a sense of the way you would like to continue doing these things. The mood in which you wake up, the first words you utter, the first Kiddush we make, the first time we recite Birkat Hamazon with a benscher after enjoying our Yom Tov meal.

This Rosh Hashanah, may we elevate our preparation and experience with meaning and purpose. May we all be written and sealed in the Book of Life, for a year filled with good health, fulfilment, happiness, peace and prosperity.

About the Author
Tanya Garber grew up in Sydney, Australia and has been the Rebbetzin of Shenley United Jewish Community in Hertfordshire, England together with her husband, Rabbi Alan Garber since 2013. They worked as the associate rabbinical couple at the Great Synagogue Sydney for 3 years and prior to that in Leeds, servicing the needs of university students on campus in the Yorkshire region for 3 years. Their children are avid enthusiasts and ambassadors for the work they do, all finding unique ways of connecting with the community. Tanya works as a specialist radiographer for the Royal Free NHS Trust and is currently undertaking her postgraduate studies in film reading and interpretation in breast imaging. Tanya enjoys photography, art, ceramics and public speaking and uses these to connect with ladies and bat mitzvah girls in her community. She loves sharing her passion for challah making and using creative and artistic means to bring the Torah portion and and festivals alive.