Your First Rosh Hashanah?
A few inspiring words for the uninitiated.
Rosh Hashana, "The New Year" in Hebrew, is a deeply spiritual holiday. The New Year commemorates the creation of the world (Adam and Eve were created on Rosh Hashana) and each year the world's existence is extended for another year, created anew, as it were. Mankind is also included in this new creation every year.
The New Year is an obvious time for judgment (which is why Rosh Hashana is also called Yom HaDin, literally "Judgment Day"). Every creation we make, whether it is in art, business or even cooking, is judged by us. At some point we will step back and evaluate our creation. Does it live up to expectations? Are we pleased with it? What are its faults? On this, the anniversary of our creation, God does the same with us. We are evaluated, hence the "Day of Judgment".
This day is deeply spiritual because on judgment day, not unlike what happens when a person is waiting to hear a court sentence, we are forced to reflect on ourselves. Did I live up to God's expectation of me? Is God pleased with me? What are my faults? Because of the intense mood of the moment this day presents the most powerful spiritual opportunity available -- the opportunity for us to reflect on how we can elevate ourselves to a higher plane. What does God want from me? He wants me to be on His team. How am I judged? Have I lived my year pursuing self-gratification, or have I grown closer to God in thought and deed? Am I making this world a better place to live in?
This is the judgment on Rosh Hashana, these are the questions, and with this understanding the opportunities for spiritual growth are unparalleled. Dig in and enjoy the potential. Rosh Hashana is the spiritual world's prime time.
Lost in the Synagogue?
The Rosh Hashana liturgy represents some of the most sublime and awesome words that have ever been penned to express our love and reverence for God. The theme of the day is making God a King. When we proclaim God as King we formally declare that we are His subjects and that we are at His service to do our part to help make the world a worthwhile creation. But getting into the deeply majestic liturgy is often not so easy. It is not unlike learning to appreciate fine wine or art. It takes time to appreciate rich elegance. Therefore we offer a few suggestions for overcoming possible boredom. Read the introductions and overviews presented in most Rosh Hashana prayer books. It's okay to not follow the services at all times and to do some independent learning and praying.
Use some of the time in shul for reflection and introspection. Tune in to the message of the day and try to meditate on it, letting it permeate your heart in the deepest and truest way. That may be more relevant for you than saying any particular paragraph.
While praying, focus on quality rather than quantity, on depth rather than breadth. Find a portion that you find relevant and meaningful, and say it slowly, thoughtfully. Three recommended portions would include the Shema prayer or Nishmas (just before Shachris Shema) and of course the core of the prayers, the Shemoneh Esrei or Amidah.. Savor the words as you say them, open your heart to their content and message. These are the high points of the service and might be just right for your personal meditations and concentration.
If the original Hebrew is not familiar to you, then have an English aid. The Artscroll Machzor is highly recommended. In addition to the translation, it also has comments and insights. The overview is one that can be read and mulled over, and contains deep thoughts that will greatly enhance the spiritual dimension of the morning's experience. Make sure to get hold of this Machzor before the holiday.
Why go to Synagogue?
There is undoubtedly great reward for prayer even at home, but when one joins with the community in communal worship our prayers are especially cherished by God. For us, it establishes our dedication to the community and its values. Being together with fellow Jews on Rosh Hashana is its own reward. Maybe your grandchildren will remain Jewish because of your connection to the community.
What about the Shofar?
The main theme of the day is brought out by the blowing of the shofar. The shofar is the royal trumpet we Jews blast to proclaim God's Kingship. Those blasts have the incredible ability to go deep into places in our psyche that are otherwise dormant and to awaken within them the natural desire to come close to God, to elevate Him, to develop a relationship with Him. The shofar trumpets our coronation of God and awakens our very spiritual essence to perform that job.
Rosh Hashana is a day packed with so much intense opportunity and spiritual promise. It is a day to be cherished. But it often takes some time to develop appreciation for its loftiness. That is why we should take it slow when getting into it at the beginning. Make it a point to focus your energies on a few good growth opportunities for the day and the coming year. In time these few items will become a real treasure trove. And it usually happens much quicker than you think!