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Charles E. Savenor

Rosh Hashanah 2023 – Reflecting on Our Constitution

Rosh Hashanah is as much a temporal milestone as a moral invitation to introspection. The process of reflection, repentance, and renewal compels us to ask ourselves about who we are, who we want to be, and what type of legacy we seek to leave for the next generation.

These questions apply not just to our personal lives, but also to our larger society. Currently in both America and Israel, democracy as a form of government has faced challenges that we might have found unimaginable just a generation ago.

Every year, the events of our day infuse Rosh Hashanah with meaning. It is easy to imagine that the ongoing war in Ukraine, the vigorous debate about Israel’s judiciary reforms, and the rise of hate crimes will be front and center in rabbis’ sermons and conversations in the synagogue lobby.

This year, the calendar provides another lens through which we can see these Days of Awe, as Rosh Hashanah falls on Constitution Day, which commemorates the signing of the U.S. Constitution on September 17, 1787, in Philadelphia. While Independence Day has been etched onto the American calendar for some time, this national milestone was not officially recognized by Congress until 2004.

The signing of the Constitution was a watershed moment in the founding of our country. Replacing the weak Articles of Confederation enacted in 1781, the Constitution was a second attempt to organize the federal government, clarify its powers, and establish the parameters between the federal government and the states as well as its citizens. In his new book, The Bill of Obligations, Richard Haass explains that “the animating idea was to limit any concentration of power,” so authority was distributed to the three branches of government.

The Constitution, as we well know, did not foresee or solve every problem. In particular, slavery’s status was a dark cloud over the new republic. Despite its imperfections, this document has remained in place as the national standard of law and governance for over 235 years.

The calendric overlap provides us with a unique opportunity to reflect upon our spiritual state and the state of our nation. While our individual experience is important as Jews and citizens, both Rosh Hashanah and Constitution Day remind us that we are part of something larger than ourselves.

Last year, Rabbi Michael G. Holzman, spiritual leader of the Northern Virginia Hebrew Congregation and the creator of the Rebuilding Democracy Project, encouraged rabbis to speak about democracy on the Days of Awe. One year later, the importance and urgency of my colleague’s message has only increased. Rosh Hashanah gives rabbis and their congregations the chance to attach new meaning and renewed commitment to the anchoring text of our democracy. And Constitution Day reminds us about the importance of justice, the temptations of power, and the blessings of second chances for communities as much as for individuals.

The fact that our Jewish prayers are couched in the plural signifies that this path of growth, healing, and renewal is one we walk together. Robert Putnam, the author of Bowling Alone, asserts that being part of a faith community makes us more likely to belong to community organizations, take part in local civic and political life, energize community problem solving, and press for local social or political reform.

Exploring the meaning of America in our own lives can enhance and elevate the conversation around our holiday tables. Hearing opinions different from our own may open our hearts to new ways of approaching common challenges in our society.

I serve as the executive director of Civic Spirit, an organization that provides training in civic education for the 4.5 million students who attend faith based day schools – Jewish, Catholic, Christian, and Islamic – in the United States. Considering the growing sense of helplessness and hopelessness among today’s youth, civic education constitutes a constructive course of action.

More than a calendric coincidence, Rosh Hashana and Constitution Day inform one another. This Rosh Hashanah when we hear the shofar blasts, let’s embrace not just the invitation to begin our lives anew, but also the spirit of American democracy inscribed on the Liberty Bell: “Proclaim liberty throughout all the land unto all the inhabitants thereof” (Leviticus 25:10). The pursuit of liberty is an ongoing aspiration as much as a legacy we can be proud to model for our children and generations to come.

About the Author
Rabbi Charlie Savenor is the Executive Director of Civic Spirit. A graduate of Brandeis, JTS and Columbia University's Teachers College, he blogs on parenting, education, and leadership. In addition to supporting IDF Lone Soldiers, he serves on the international boards of Leket Israel and Gesher. He is writing a book called "What My Father Couldn't Tell Me."
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