(This is a section of a Rosh Hashana letter I wrote in 2008 and upon rereading, decided to republish here. It has been slightly edited)
I am writing to you from the Holy City of Jerusalem, and am praying that you all have a truly good and sweet New Year. I wrote down some thoughts about Rosh Hashana, it is more personal than scholarly but I hope and pray you may find them helpful. Here it goes.
There are certain words that for many people, have almost lost their meaning, like Love, Truth, Happiness, I have even met people who do not even believe these things exist but are just fictions created by man. Usually these very same people are also in a tremendous amount of pain, and are also armored and numb so they don’t have to feel their pain.
There is a word that has come to the foremost part of my mind this past week, since last Motzei Shabbat when I began saying Selichot, which is mercy. The Hebrew word for mercy is called ‘rachamim’. Rachamim is what allows life to exist. Rachamim is why it is OK to not be perfect, rachamim is what we pray for on Rosh Hashanah, and rachamim is what we all need in this world and what we need to have for each other and ourselves.
There is so much pressure on people right now not to mess up, to be perfect. There was even a game show on TV not so long ago called The Weakest Link, where if a person made a mistake they were labeled ‘the weakest link’ and were ejected from the game. Many of us are afraid that we will be the weakest link in our own lives, that maybe secretly we are, and because of this fear, that we will be ejected from our own lives if we are not perfect. That if we show any blemish, flaw, or weakness, we will be removed, that we won’t deserve love.
Rachamim says you deserve love even if you are blemished, that you deserve love even if you are not perfect, that you deserve love even if you don’t know the answer to the thousand dollar question, that you deserve love and help even if you are too weak or don’t know how to help yourself. It is rachamim that allows us to do Teshuva (the act of returning to our true state) because it allows the weak the opportunity and chance to become strong, it allows those who have fallen so deep into sin, that they no longer know the difference between good and evil, to re-learn how to choose good, how to be good and how to do good, and even if they don’t learn it, it is rachamim that gives them the chance to learn it, to walk the path of Teshuva.
On Rosh Hashanah we come before God as people who have messed up, and because God is merciful, we pray for what we need in order to live and more. We pray that we have the life we want to live. We pray to be inscribed in the Book of Life for a good and sweet year. But this brings up questions, like, ‘do we deserve it?’ and ‘how do we get it?’ In this coming year how do we make our life a vessel for what we are praying for?
Rosh Hashanah is called Yom Ha Din, the day of Judgement, because on this day, based on our past actions, and God’s wisdom, it is decided what we are going to get. Rosh Hashana is also the birthday of the world, the anniversary of the creation of man, the day that the energy of man comes into the universe. That means on this day we can start over, we can return who we really are, our authentic selves. That is why at this time we are called to do Teshuva, to return to who we are. Teshuva is how we come to deserve the life we want.
There is a saying from the sages: ‘nothing stands in the way of Teshuva.’ This means that if a person wants to change their life for good, nothing can stop them, that they can overcome any obstacle. The most powerful prayer is a prayer that is put into action. What actions can we take that will guarantee us to be written in the Book of Life? Actions that are a reflection of Teshuva.
I was once walking out of a bar the night before Rosh Hashanah, and I overheard a woman speaking to someone, and I heard the woman say that ‘so and so had not called her back’ and so she had ‘written her off.’ The phrase ‘to write someone off,’ essentially means that if they were God, they would not write this person into the Book of Life. I saw that many times I have not only written off other people, but that I have also written off myself. People write themselves out of life all the time. How many young people write off their bodies because they think they are not good enough, or write of their personalities because they want to fit in, or write off their dreams because of external pressure and despair.
I saw that if I wanted to be written in the Book of Life, in terms of how I lived, I had to write myself into the Book of Life. I had to live a life that was an affirmation of my life, that my life was valuable and special and worth living, and that I had to write everyone else in the Book of Life too. That I had to treat them with the love, respect, and compassion they deserved as someone who was alive.
‘Nothing stands in the way of Teshuva,’ means that not only should I write myself into the Book of Life, through living a life worth living, but that the story I write, through the life I live, should be one that is a reflection of my highest self, my greatest potential. If I do this then I will have all of those good things in my life.
But there is another question, which is, what if we don’t know who we are, what we want, what our highest potential is? This is where the Shofar comes in. The Shofar is blown in three ways, Tekiah, Shevarim, and Teruah. These three ways are modeled after the sounds a human being makes when they cry. It is taught that during this time we are supposed to pour out our heart to God. One of the most amazing things in the world is that our hearts are always there, even if we forget them and in our hearts is the potential for our dreams and aspirations.
But how do we pour out our hearts? What if we don’t even know how to do that? That is where pain comes in. Many of us may not know what’s in our hearts but we know where we are hurting and in pain. Many of us are numb, numb to our pain, many of us in fact do self destructive things like overeating, drinking to excess, workaholism or some other forms of escape, which creates more pain to try to numb the pain we are already feeling.
(I am speaking about psycho/spiritual pain not physical injury) . But it is pain, that is actually the route to our heart, the reason we are in pain is because our hearts are in pain. Pouring our your heart, means telling God all the places you are hurting, and why you are hurting, and all the things you are yearning for. It means going through all the layers of frustration and anger, bitterness, hatred, and dreams, and loneliness, and joy, and pouring all of it out before God, through prayer, through singing, through crying. Through this very act, what happens is we become un-numb, we begin to melt, we begin to feel alive again. In allowing ourselves to feel our pain, it begins to lift, and we unfold and unclench where we were once tense and compressed, the very pain we have been armoring can become a shofar that connects to our heart and allows us to cry out from it.
May God bless the Jewish people and all of the world this Rosh Hashanah, that our hearts be softened and filled with rachamim and that our voices resound with prayers that renew ourselves and all of the world, and that we be written and sealed in the Book of Life for a good and sweet life.