On Monday night, September 6, Jews around the world will begin the holiday of Rosh HaShanah — Jewish New Year. This is the first of the Jewish high holidays, which extend through Yom Kippur on September 16. Although the holiday season actually begins before Rosh HaShanah and extends past Yom Kippur (through Simchat Torah, almost two weeks later), this ten-day period of Rosh HaShanah to Yom Kippur is called the “Ten Days of Awe” and is the apex of the Jewish ceremonial days.
But what are these holidays really about, and how do they relate to America’s traditional values?
Judaism teaches that on Rosh HaShanah, we open our “Books of Life,” take an honest accounting of our souls and actions, and clean up any mistakes or messes we have created in the past year. Our “Book” is opened on Rosh HaShanah and sealed for the next year on Yom Kippur, which means the “Day of Atonement.” It is a ten-day, ritualized process of self-awareness, personal responsibility and rectification.
This process, called t’shuvah, reflects the values embedded in our nation. Judaism, like America, has always been based on individual responsibility. We bow only to “the King of Kings,” and we strive to be personally awake and aware. While we must always take care of others, both Judaism and American values are rooted in respect for individual choices and in encouraging each other to act with integrity and righteousness. The process of t’shuvah is a wonderful tool to strengthen the value of personal responsibility.
First, we recognize how we have hurt others during the past year and how we didn’t take opportunities to do good when we could have. We then personally apologize for what we did to those we hurt. Furthermore, we repair the damage we created. It’s about more than apologizing; we actually fix our mistakes through positive actions and commit not to cause harm in the future.
This process helps develop psychological, emotional and spiritual maturity in us. And it is a foundation stone for developing individuals who choose to be awake and responsible, as opposed to subjugating our rights and responsibilities to others.
May we all be blessed to be aware, awake and conscious of our actions. And may we always embrace personal responsibility in order to achieve the beauty this nation has always promised.
Shana Tovah u’Metukah — may it be a sweet and good New Year for us and for all of America.
Rabbi Michael Barclay is the Spiritual Leader of Temple Ner Simcha in Agoura Hills.