Thought of the Week: 29 September 2016

Written by Rabbi Colin Eimer — 28 September 2016

I have a strong aversion to the New Year and the High Holy Days. Or, to be a bit more precise, I don’t like the English names we give to the Jewish autumn festivals. I think they carry the wrong sorts of messages about these festivals.

‘New Year’ makes me think of December 31st: partying, booze, celebration, false bonhomie (just what does ‘auld lang syne’ mean anyway?!) resolutions which we have no intention of sticking to and which we know we won’t, but they somehow go with the January 1st territory. ‘High Holydays’ smacks too much of ‘high’ – not as in legal or illegal ‘highs,’ which wouldn’t be too bad – but ‘high’ as in ‘High Church’: something full of a ceremonial which is only accessible to, and understood by, those ‘in the know.’ But the effect is to create a distance between God and the individual, between religious practice and the worshipper. In addition, it took me ages as a kid to realise that it was ‘holydays’ and not ‘holidays.’ Hence my dislike of New Year and High Holydays.

Surprise, surprise I do like Rosh HaShanah, the Hebrew name for the New Year. ‘Rosh’ ‘head’; ‘shanah’ ‘year.’ The root of ‘shanah’ is the three Hebrew letters shin-nun-hay. It’s a curious combination in Hebrew, akin to a word in English like, say, ‘pine,’ where the same letters can have a variety of different meanings. Each sense of the word ‘shanah’ gives us a different way of understanding this season.

So ‘shanah’ can mean ‘repeat.’ What is the coming year going to be like? Will it be little more than an action replay, as it were, of what happened last year? For some, caring for a child, partner or parent relative who is unwell, or living with some ongoing health condition, there may be little or no choice. But where we might have some freedom of choice, what will we make of our lives in the coming year, how will we shape or direct them? I remember reading about somebody, in conversation with their mentor, who said, “in the situation in which I find myself” when their mentor interrupted, saying: “No, in the situation in which you put yourself.” They were saying that nobody is quite as passive as that. External circumstances may well limit our options, but what we do with those options, how we respond to the options, is not beyond our control.

But that same word ‘shanah’ can also mean ‘change.’ Here it becomes something of a mirror image to ‘shanah’ as ‘repeat.’ In this sense of the word, it invites us to reflect on what has changed since last Rosh HaShanah in our relationships, in how we treat others and ourselves, in where we stand in relation to our lives as Jews, as human beings. It has been a turbulent year since last Rosh HaShanah: the Brexit vote; scandals and corruption here, there and everywhere; our political leaders not exactly inspiring confidence; worries about terrorism in general and anti-Semitism in particular; appalling scenes in Syria, the Calais ‘jungle’; a bizarre election campaign in the USA – the sad litany seems endless. I’m usually an optimist but even I’m feeling a certain uncertainty about where things are heading.

That double sense of ‘shanah’ seems to be enough to be getting on with at this time. It suggests a continuum with, at one end, repetition; at the time reflecting other, change. Rosh HaShanah invites us to spend on where we situate ourselves on that continuum and what we would like to do about it? What has been good in the past year, what do we want to hold on to and what do we need to do to make sure that it continues to be good in the coming year? And what would we like to change in our lives and what do we need to do to make things different in the coming year?

May we use the season profitably and may the coming year be good and sweet for us and for all the world.