At the New Year, our group retreats from the madness
Politics. Brutality. Greed. Incompetence. Uncertainty. At Rosh Hashanah, my people, a diverse and complex group, finds common comfort, sanctuary, and healing in one another.
In other denominations, confession is a personal event, often realized between the confessor and a priestly intermediary. The cleric is charged with admonition but also the release, by virtue of so many devotions, mantras and other rituals.
Not so with the Jews: As our community gathers for the rites of the New Year, large clusters form, mostly in congregational settings. Rosh Hashanah is celebrated as the birthday of the world, Creation’s anniversary, when God separated elements, such as water and firmament, and made the Earth.
We dip apples in honey, tasting the fruits and sweetness of this world, smacking our lips with hope and renewal. We are all doing the same thing – from Tarzana to Tel Aviv. The themes of repentance and contrition are introduced, but not fully engaged until the more severe and ascetic and fast day of Yom Kippur. We’re committed to the notion that God is preparing a judgment about us that is sealed in the legendary Book of Life.
Nearly every prayer, entreaty and appeal in the thick prayer book of these “Days of Awe” is in the plural form. “Our Father, Our King, we have sinned against you. . .” The climactic, sorrowful and poignant Kol Nidrei of Yom Kippur Eve is a national cry: “Let all the vows we made from last year to this year that we did not fulfill be null and void!” Surely, every individual is charged to make peace with others (the primary goal of the season, in fact), but the experience is plural, communal and collective.
So in this season of turning leaves and changing breezes, of solstice and star shine, when even birds and trees revolve along with human beings, when the air is a bit sharper with autumnal reflection, we come together for warmth and consolation.
Unlike our Christian neighbors, we are redeemed as a group. For the faithful Christian, it’s a question of “I can be saved.” For the Jew, burnished by history, longing for the ancestral peoplehood that heard the ram’s horn as a tribe and made pilgrimage to Jerusalem, it’s a matter of “We can be saved.” This is not judgmental, it is simply observational.
We left Egypt together, we received the Law at Sinai together, we entered the Promised Land together, we were finally exiled by the Romans together. We yearned together for a return to Zion, we suffered brutish exiles and wanton Inquisitions together, we perished in the Holocaust together, we restored the state of Israel together.
When a Jew visits Buenos Aires or London or Athens, the first thing he or she does is go look for the local synagogue or the premier Jewish delicatessen. A Christian may tour churches, and he may scout out good food, but he is not looking for that indelible, blood-drenched link between himself and the local manifestation of the remnant. When I’m in Rome, I cherish my visits in the Vatican and honor the reverence of the place. I weep in the Sistine Chapel. But I’ve already been to the Jewish Ghetto and tasted the time-honored Jewish artichoke sautéed in oil that connects me to my ghosts.
Judaism is sociology; Christianity is liturgy. Christianity is a faith; Judaism is a people with a faith. The Jewish New Year is not just devotion; it’s a national meeting. And it’s our group walk away from the madness that is the world today.