Rosh Hashanah - 5784/2023 Rabbi Elkin

  • 5784/2023
  • Rabbi Elkin
  • Rosh Hashanah
Rosh Hashanah - 5784/2023 Rabbi Elkin

Rosh Hashanah 5784
Rabbi Hannah Elkin
Wilshire Boulevard Temple, Los Angeles

In Awe of Beginning Again

For some reason, I always associate the High Holy Days, and Rosh Hashanah in particular, with new shoes. I grew up going to services with my family, and each year, as I outgrew my dress shoes from the previous year, I got to pick out a new pair. It was a familiar tradition every September: new temple outfit and new temple dress shoes. Now this also means that I associate the High Holy Days, and Rosh Hashanah in particular, with blisters. Although they were purchased a few weeks in advance, the pair only came out of the box hours before Erev Rosh Hashanah. To say the least, they were not broken in. So, for me, the first day of the Jewish New Year always brought with it blisters, and bandaids. Despite the discomfort of the new shoes, I loved this annual ritual: the excitement of something new and different, the physical proof of growth from one year to the next, and the open possibilities of where this new pair might take me. These memories and feelings still resonate with me years later.

The High Holy Day season helps us seek out and harness that feeling of excitement for the opportunities of the New Year. We gather over the ten days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur to recall the past year and pray for a good and sweet new one. In order to repair, learn from the past, and start off on the right foot, we take the time to address our mistakes and missteps through cheshbon ha’nefesh (taking stock of our souls) and teshuvah (repairing where we missed the mark). And while this spiritual work may seem heavy and dire, it can also fill us with joy because it will lead us to a new beginning: we can find awe and joy for the fresh start that the New Year brings.

The practices and rituals of the season point us in this direction. Apples and honey and raisin-filled challah symbolize sweetness and renewing hope. The special liturgy we pray encourages us to take advantage of the chances we have in our one life to live. One prayer in our machzor, our High Holy Day prayerbook, perfectly sums up this message. In an interpretive prayer for personal reflection on page 16, the passage reads: “Here I am, one soul within this prayer community… May I bring the best of my energies to these Holy Days, approaching this spiritual work with open heart and mind, sincerity, and sustained focus on the deep questions of this season: who am I? How shall I live? Where have I fallen short- or failed?...Taking comfort in Your promise that I am always free to change, released from staleness and routine, let me know the joy of beginning again.” 

“Let me know the joy of beginning again.” That one line always gives me goosebumps. Free to change the habits in our life, shaking off the dust of past patterns, we can know the refreshing, renewing excitement of a different path forward, the joy of beginning again. Wherever our individual journeys led us in the past year, we all know the feeling of being stuck at a deadend, of repeating the same actions that will never lead us where we want to go. We feel trapped in a room with no doors or escape routes. We know that we want a way forward, but cannot seem to find it. 

But when we reach that moment when a lightbulb switches on, when a door appears and opens to a new path, we can charge ahead in a new direction. Stuck in stale, repetitive patterns, we can feel the joy and excitement of beginning again. The High Holy Days and the spiritual practices that come with them give us the time and mechanism to learn from the old and figure out a new road forward. That simple opportunity, should fill us with awe. We get to start fresh. We get to begin again. After reflecting on the past year, we might say: I am going to apply for a new job, I am going to rebuild my relationship with my friend, I am going to visit my parents more, I am going to recommit to my partner. With hope and appreciation for the opportunity, we have the chance to start taking the steps. After banging our heads against a brick wall, or lacking focus or a direction on where we want to be in life, we can find tremendous relief and joy when we take those first steps forward.

But beginning again brings its own challenges, and we might lose sight of the joy. Even with all of our hopes and good intentions, we come up with plenty of external and self-inflicted stumbling blocks to slow our progress. Whether from fear of the new, or desperate clinging to the past, we stop ourselves from moving forward. I could leave my job but the new one won’t be any better anyway. I’ll reach out to my friend by the end of the year, I have too much going on right now. My partner and I do just fine coasting along without trying too hard. Stuck in that same room and repeating those same patterns, we might have outgrown them a long time ago, but they’re comfortable and familiar, and they don’t ask that much of us. We may not have found the strength and resilience to leap into the future yet. 

Despite these possible difficulties, we should find awe and inspiration in that spark of the new path. Even if we feel that our failures are unresolvable and our habits are too fixed, when we lean into the awe of beginning again, we can build that better year and life that we crave, we can take those first steps forward. So how do we decide to leap into our new beginnings? How do we start to transform our lives? 

The wisdom and traditions of Judaism give us guidance here. First, as Jews, our foundational identity teaches us to move past our limitations and transcend to our better selves. The very name of our people reminds us of these qualities. Ivrim, the original name for the Jewish people, shares the same Hebrew root as the word to move or pass through. And so, the original name for our community means “the people who cross over or move through.” Our ancestors lived out this quality, like Abraham picking up and leading his family to our destiny after God’s call, or the Israelites traveling out of Egypt and slavery towards the Promised Land and freedom. Our fundamental identity reminds us to live as the people who pass through their narrow limitations toward opportunity and the possibility of beginning again with a better life. Our people’s journeys were never easy or straightforward, but their message affirms our nature and destiny to break through from one kind of existence to a better one. In the stories and wisdom that we share through the generations, we pass on how we can transform our lives and ourselves when we take those first steps forward.

Second, as Jews, when the opportunities to start fresh arrive, we strive to find and lean into the joy and sweetness of the moment. In Jewish tradition, when we perform a mitzvah or celebrate a simchah, we are obligated to do more than just go through the motions. Instead, we are required to perform hiddur mitzvah, the act of enhancing or adorning a mitzvah. This value is why we light Shabbat and Chanukkah candles with beautiful candle sticks and chanukiyot, why we wrap ourselves in embroidered tallitot, and why we dance at a wedding until the final song. 

As Jews, we lean into joy. We enhance and spread the joy of each mitzvah and at every simchah. It’s not a celebration unless we fill the event with music, dancing, blessings over wine, and a full buffet spread. We celebrate the new opportunities of the occasion, whether it’s a new wedding couple, or a new baby, or the first night of Chanukkah. So when we feel scared at a new beginning, unsure or frightened at the unknown, our tradition tells us to lean into joy. During the High Holy Days, we push ourselves to overcome our personal flaws and struggles. And then, we fill our mouths with apples and honey and raisin-filled challah to remember the sweet joy of the season. Despite the fear or sadness of letting go of the past, we seize onto that joy and awe that we have a chance to begin again.

A few years ago, I worked as a spiritual counselor at Beit Teshuvah, the Jewish-based addiction recovery center in Los Angeles. Halfway through my time there, I was assigned to work with a young man in his early 20’s who was in rehab for the first time. Sitting on a stone bench under a shady tree in the center’s garden for our first meeting, I asked him to share his story with me. He opened up about his spiraling pattern of drinking, partying, and drug-use, and how he found himself at his lowest serving a month of jail time following a bar fight and low-level assault charges.

It was during his time in prison that, for the first time, he found himself deeply troubled by his actions. For the first time, it occurred to him that he hurt people. He described the newness of the feelings of empathy and compassion with a look of eye-opening wonder on his face. When he finished his story, he kept saying, “I don’t want to be that guy.” He craved an opportunity to change, to begin again for himself. And without hesitation, he lept into the work of repairing his life with determination, gratitude, and excitement.

I think often of this young man, and I hope that he stayed on that path. I have never seen someone, when presented with the opportunity to change, be so full of awe and gratitude for it, and so diligent and determined to do the hard work to move forward. He did not have a simple or easy road to redemption. His path had to include humility, patience, resilience, and some failure. But the door of a new opportunity and new life appeared to him, and no way was he going to miss it.

We each have our own stories, our own struggles that don’t look quite like this young man’s. We don’t necessarily need to hit such a rock-bottom to realize that we need a change, though sometimes we do. But, as the High Holy Days instruct us to, we each can do the work of soul searching and repair for the New Year, and we can begin again with joy and awe for the new opportunity. What could we gain? We could repair relationships and create new connections and community. We could work towards our own growth, live in better alignment with our integrity and authenticity, and transcend the cycles of the past when we have the courage and the fortitude to take it on.

Today, as we celebrate Rosh Hashanah and move into the new year, we still identify as Ivrim, as the people who move through challenges to cross over into a new and better place. We can grasp onto and lean into joy for the new opportunity through the challenges and fears. 

Each of us has our own journey, our own new beginning and hurdles to overcome: What dusty old habits do you hope to shake off this year? How are you beginning again this year? Only you can do the work for yourself to take that leap. Only you can walk through that door for yourself. So take that opportunity, that lifeline, of High Holy Days. Draw from the awe and joy of the season and take on the door that has opened to a new path. That new pair of dress shoes for the new year might pinch and leave us with a few blisters when we first put them on. But when we walk through that open door, who knows where they might take us, what growth and blessings and joys might we discover. As we begin the new year, may we remember that we are in the season for fresh starts and transformational change. Shanah tovah.