The twin truths of Rosh HaShanah

The twin truths of Rosh HaShanah

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was not alone. We Jews also have a dream, and each year on Rosh HaShanah, we reconnect to that dream. It’s a dream for all of humanity — Rosh HaShanah celebrates the birth of humankind — that we happen to live out Jewishly: the sound of the shofar; the crunch of apples dipped in honey; the waterfall of words that make up the synagogue service; and so many other Jewish traditions that connect us to the pursuit of the dreams that people of every culture and community share. 

As Jews, we speak of the yearning to be inscribed in the Book of Life for another year. American tradition, as recorded in the Declaration of Independence, calls this the right to “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” In “Journeys: An American Story,” a wonderful new collection of 72 essays about “immigration and American greatness” edited by Andrew Tisch and Mary Skafidas, it is described as our shared commitment to democracy, opportunity, freedom of expression, and equality.

With whatever words we claim this dream, it is always dreamed in the universal and lived in the particular. Rosh HaShanah reminds us that the dream is both proudly particularistic and passionately universal. It is the story of Adam and Eve, and it is learned through the stories of Abraham, Sarah, Hagar, Isaac, and Ishmael. It is the story of appreciating that we are each unique, and that we are also always part of something larger than whatever makes us unique as people, as peoples, or as nations.

Proudly particularist and passionately universalist: These are commitments that are hard-wired into the Jewish story from the beginning of time. And yet they are increasingly impossible for more and more of us — as Jews, as Americans, in our relationship to Israel, just to name a few — to simultaneously honor, especially when it comes to U.S. politics, Israeli policy, or the meaning of 21st-century Jewish life. I am talking about everything from how people express opinions regarding the president of the United States, to Israel’s nation-state law, to what counts as legitimate dissent from well-meaning people, to our most fundamental sense of connection to those who differ from us, and what place we think such people deserve in our countries and communities.

In these times, we seem clear about one thing: rising frustration, mistrust, and anger. (OK, that’s three things, but they are all of one piece.) The drumbeat of that frustration, mistrust, and anger has become the soundtrack of our lives and of our public culture, only occasionally interrupted by events such as the passing of Sen. John McCain; even that interruption, not to mention the lessons we might learn from that lion of the U.S. Senate, are already quickly dissipating. 

For what it’s worth, this is not a new situation. In fact, the challenge was summed up 52 years ago in the Buffalo Springfield song by its very title — “For What It’s Worth”: “There’s battle lines being drawn/Nobody’s right if everybody’s wrong…Paranoia strikes deep/Into your life it will creep.” 

While most decent people bemoan this circumstance, we largely fail to make any real improvements. Why? Because bemoaning is not a strategy for change. If anything, it is a strategy for NOT changing — for helping us to feel good about feeling bad, and substituting that feeling for actually making real change in our culture. 

But Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur are all about change, and the renewal that comes with change, so now is the perfect time to move from bemoaning to building better alternatives — to making the changes that honor both our uniqueness and the recognition that there is more to us than that which divides us. In fact, finding that balance is what defines Rosh HaShanah at its best, not to mention America at its best, and each of us at our best.

The Jewish calendar celebrates the fact that we are at our best — as individuals, as Jews, and as nations — when we use our particular traditions to realize the fullness of our universal humanity. Rosh HaShanah shatters the false dichotomy between particular and universal, as the children of Abraham and Sarah celebrate the birth of Adam and Eve — the birth of the world.

In an increasingly polarized world, which pits citizens against citizens, natives against immigrants — not to mention Jews against Jews — Rosh HaShanah challenges us to crack the echo chambers in our lives and in our communities, in order to strengthen them all. The holiday invites us to write the next chapters in our stories — personal, American, Jewish, and more — with pride in our unique experiences, and a deep sense of what binds us all together.

Imagine that Rosh HaShanah invites not only our prayers and good wishes — our inclusion in the Book of Life — but also invites us to write the next chapters in that book.

Consider these questions as you write your next chapters:

• How do you tell the story of you? Of your Americanness? Of your connection to Jewishness?

• How do your stories connect you to some people? From whom might those same stories disconnect you?

• What connects you to people with whom you deeply disagree, and how might you build on those connections?

Discover what a difference it makes as you live your Rosh HaShanah answers all year long. 

Dr. King teaches, “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny,” and the Talmud teaches, “On Rosh HaShanah the world was created, and in that same month, in the future, the Jewish people will be redeemed” (Tractate Rosh HaShanah 11a). 

Our redemption as a unique people should never be forgotten and always be pursued, as should our awareness that such redemption will only come, as the sages of this passage teach, when it can be celebrated with those others who share this birthday with us.

Rabbi Brad Hirschfield is co-president of Clal-the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership.

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