As Jewish holidays go, Rosh Hashana is far from the most popular. Even if lots of Jews go to shul on the high holidays, I still think (to use a school-centric analogy) Purim, Channukah and Passover wouldn’t let it sit with them at lunch. I’m not even sure that Sukkot or Shavuot would want to hang out with Rosh Hashana. (I’m not condoning their behavior, I’m just calling it like I see it. We’ll work with those holidays to teach them how to be more inclusive. But right now, that’s how it is.) Why is Rosh Hashana so unpopular?
I know that the easy answer is that Rosh Hashana is a very shul based holiday and shul is hard. It’s not fun. But I think there is more to it than that. Rosh Hashana has primarily two connected themes that run through the prayer service; 1) Hashem is King and 2) we are being judged. Neither of those things are really easy things for us sophisticated 21st century Jews to deal with.
Even if we are comfortable with the idea that the world has a Creator and that we have a special relationship with the Creator, the idea of KING is more difficult. To modern ears raised on democracy and social liberalism the idea of a king is, well, uncomfortable. All the more so the idea that we are being judged is radically uncomfortable. We all accept that there are things in life, both positive and negative that happen to us, that are beyond our control. But often it seems easier to think of these things as luck, nature, karma, or destiny. To think that it is a result of a judgment, that it is intentional, that just doesn’t sit well. No wonder poor Rosh Hashana can’t sit with the cool kids and their themes of freedom, joy, and redemption. Rosh Hashana is such a downer!
Perhaps with some thinking together we can help raise Rosh Hashana’s popularity level, maybe just a bit. Let’s try a thought experiment. Imagine a world without Rosh Hashanah. Before you celebrate not having to pay for seats in shul and not having to be in those seats, let’s just see what else will be missing. A world without Rosh Hashana – maybe no such thing a honey cake, no big loss there, it’s the Jewish version of fruit cake anyway- always the butt of the joke. What else? No shofar? Not sure who would miss that. No standing in judgement? I guess that would be good, right?
Well, judgement is a double edged sword. On the one hand, it does mean that we are being called to account for those times we fell short. On the other hand, it does mean we are being called out and noticed for those times we got it right. Imagine if you never had an end of year review with your boss. If she never went over your sales numbers or your customer satisfaction number with you, would that be a motivator for success or would it demotivate? If your spouse never called you out for leaving the wet towel on the bathroom floor, but also never noticed when you cooked dinner AND cleaned up after, would that be a sign of a healthy loving marriage? The truth is that being judged doesn’t mean we’re not in control. It means what we do matters. And it matters to the Creator of the Universe.
As we looked at the prayer service today in preparation for the holiday, as student asked me, “Why does G-d need us to say all this praise and stuff? Why does He need us to say all this ‘reigns Supreme over the highest whatever?” This question is a pretty common one and I think on some level many of us have wondered that. Here’s the surprising answer; G-d doesn’t need it. The Creator of the quark and the supernova and the platypus doesn’t need anything, let alone tiny little me saying tiny little words. But I do. I need to use those words to get into a mindset. I am standing, face to face, in front of the Creator. Right now, this is my moment in the spot light. It’s my chance to speak, to ask, to advocate for others. Those words are for us to get our minds wrapped around the profundity of the opportunity.
If we didn’t have Rosh Hashana what would we be missing? We wouldn’t have this annual review. We wouldn’t have a chance to feel like what we did mattered. Without Rosh Hashana we might think that our mistakes don’t matter and neither do all the times we got it right. We might think that the Creator is too busy creating life on some far away exoplanet to care about my family. Rosh Hashana reminds us, what we do matters, who we are matters, and it all matters to the King of kings, our Father in Heaven.