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Rosh Hashanah: Recreating our Selves

This week is the final countdown to Rosh Hashanah, the day when our fates are written for the New Year. The liturgy tells us that God sits in heaven judging all people and writing our fates in a giant book–“Who will live, and who will die; who will see fullness of years and whose death will be untimely.”

The sad thing is that for many Jews, the very imagery of the holiday that is supposed to spur us to mend our ways can make it hard for us to get there.

A king on a throne? There was certainly a time that that image invoked reflexive awe and reverence, but today it can sometimes feel downright quaint. God writing our fates in a book? Most Jews today don’t think of God as a puppeteer pulling the world’s strings, deciding who is rewarded and who is punished.


So what to do?

It would be tragic if the imagery of Rosh Hashanah kept Jews from realizing the main point of the holiday which, in a word is: Change. Not apologize, not forgive–all of those are simply(!) means to an end of entering the New Year as a different, hopefully better, person than the one who said good-bye to the last one.

Rosh Hashanah promises us that change is possible, but as anyone who’s ever been through a 12-step program knows, genuine change is hard. How do you recreate yourself on the anniversary of Creation to be a person not bound by the same resentments, frustrations, cycles, and demons that have marked your life to this point?

The answer, I think, is two-pronged: fear and hope. The fear serves as the motivation to change, since real change is so hard to accomplish. The iconography of the king on the throne may not work for us, but recognizing our lack of control over what will happen to us in the coming year can. Stopping to acknowledge, as the “Unetaneh Tokef” prayer does, our powerlessness, that we may die this year, can serve as a spiritual shake by the shoulders–the slap in the face from reality we may need to get the process started.


The other piece of the equation is hope–the trust that if we begin the difficult and painful process of change we will be supported, will be met halfway. Once again, we don’t need the traditional imagery of the holiday to convey that point to us. Instead we pray, surrounded by community, confessing shared sins and making shared promises to try to do better. It is the support of the community, reaching out together to appeal to God, that can give us the strength to make the New Year a truly New Year.

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Rabbi Arthur Waskow

posted September 18, 2006 at 10:30 pm

Why are High Holy Day services a turn-off? There is a Franz Kafka very-short story: One day a leopard came stalking into the synagogbue, ROARING and LASHING ITS TAIL. Three weeks later, it had become part of the liturgy. How can we UNtame the leopard that is lurking in the prayers? For instance: We have just been through a summer of agonizing war; and we are still mired in the unconscionable war against a Muslim country that we were lied into by a born-agan Christian president of the US. On Rosh Hashanah we read two painful stories about the separation and near-deaths of Isaac and Ishmael. Why not add to the Torah readings the passage in Gen 25 where the two brothers come together to bury their father, and then live together at Ishmael’s well? — and ask ourselves what it would take to reconcile the children of Ishmael and Isaac today? Could we bear to mourn together the deaths of our children at each other’s hands, as they mourned the most dangerous person in their lives — their father? Could we bear to invite a Muslim to speak at our services about Islam’s understanding of Abraham’s family — which overlaps with and differs from our understanding? Could we use to guide us in such explorations — “Lech l’cha,” as God said to Abraham — “Go forth beyond yourself in order to go deeper into your self” — the new book THE TENT OF ABRAHAM (written by Benedictine Sister Joan Chittister, Sufi Muslim Murshid Saadi Shakur Chisti, & myself) that explores Jewish, Christian, & Muslim wisdom rooted in the stories of Abraham? If you click to and then plug “tent” into the code box, you get a 10% discount & free shipping. And — Rosh Hashanah is traditionally the anniversary of the creation of Adam, in the Image of God. What does that say about the use of torture by the US govt? — torturing God’s Image! How many RH services will pause to make the connection and challenge the congregation to do tshuvah for tolerating this use of torture by our govt? On Yom Kippur, we read about ten rabbis the Roman Empire tortured to death. Do we pause to reealize that all Empires, to impose their might, use torture? Why is this passage in our prayerbooks? To remind us to look at our own actions now? Shanah tovah, a good sweet year — Rabbi Arthur Waskow

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posted September 19, 2006 at 7:59 am

Rabbi Waxman mentions that “anyone who has ever been through a 12-step program knows genuine change is hard.” I have to disagree with Rabbi Waxman on fear being a motivator … pain is the motivator for action and hope is what keeps one coming back. (Fear is often the root of the problem) There are many 12-step programs so I left a couple of “fill-in the blanks”. For those of you who are not familiar with the 12-steps, they are: 1. We admitted we were powerless over ______, and that our lives had become unmanageable. 2. Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity. 3. Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of G-d as we understood Him. 4. Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves. 5. Admitted to G-d, ourselves and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs. 6. Were entirely ready to have G-d remove all these defects of character. 7. Humbly asked him to remove all these defects of character. 8. Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all. 9. Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do some would injure them or others. 10. Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong promptly admitted it. 11. Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with G-d as we understood Him, praying only for knowledge of his will for us and the power to carry that out. 12. Having had a spiritual awakening as a result of working these Steps, we tried to carry this message to ______, and to practice these principles in all our affairs. Shanah Tovah.

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posted September 21, 2006 at 5:57 pm

Karin, I have a friend who is a member of AA, and at first I failed to understand about 12 step programs as “unjewish” until a different friend gave me a link( ) to a site that puts AA in a jewish context.

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posted September 22, 2006 at 5:18 am

Tzvi, I truly prefer not to break my anonymity, but I do have 30+ years in one 12-step program and 24+ in another. The key thing about any 12-step program is a “Higher Power” of our understanding, whom we choose to call G-d. That is why the program works for Christians, Jews, Muslims, agnostics and even atheists, who may choose to use the group as their higher power. IF you were to read the first 164 pages of the “Big Book” (basic text of Alcoholics Anonymous), you would find Judaic references, e.g. “One G-d”. There are others too (or perhaps I was just looking for them). The closing prayer after meetngs has been a point of discomfort; in many parts of the US and world, the serenity prayer is used. I am comfortable with the serenity prayer since it is addressed to G-d; but I can’t say the Lord’s prayer, so I say the shemah silently(4-7 times). On a very personal note, I used to listen to a woman share about her son’s suicide; my heart would lump up in my throat and I could hardly swallow for that is a parent’s worst nghtmare. After I lost my first daughter, her words came back to me, sort of like hitting print on the hidden files that run a computer behind the scenes. Her words helped me walk through the grief. Today, I talk about the loss of two daughters, the sharing of “experience strength and hope” with others. I just watched some Chabad video clips; one was a reminder that the High Holy Days gove us hope for the new year, “perhaps a lifetime” and also a time to look deeply inside ourselves for things we need to change about ourselves. That is my connecton between Judaism and a 12-step program. Thank you for for sending the site; I will check it out. Who knows, Tzvi, you may have saved a life with it?

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