When Edie asked me to write a reflection on the meaning of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, I thought I would have to do some considerable research about the holiday’s origins and find the right quotes from the Torah or from the prayer books to impart some meaning beyond the obvious themes of Renewal and Gratitude.
That evening I was out to dinner with a friend in my part-time home of Park City, Utah. I asked her what she was doing for the high holidays knowing she had just relocated here from New York. She is celebrating her first high holidays (that is what we call Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur) away from her family and the traditions that she had built for the past 50 years. She told me she was going to the local synagogue in Park City (yes, we have a few synagogues here in Utah). She then told me an anecdote about how she likes to sit in the front row at services. After laughing about it together because who really ever prefers to sit up front in the church, temple or the mosque? I told her that I did not see her an ‘up-fronter,’ and after the giggles, we got a bit more reflective on what it means to be an up-fronter and how it relates to the true meaning of the holidays.
In Judaism there is a term, “Hinaeni,” which means I am here. Jacob says it and, more importantly, repeats it when G-d first appears to him. It is actually the only repetition of any term in the Torah. There are volumes of Rabbinic interpretation about this repetition in the Torah. Ultimately many of the scholars come to agree that Jacob repeats himself because he is declaring that there are two ways to be present. Physically and Mentally. Jacob is telling G-d he is both physically and mentally present in the moment.
When I think about what the holiday of Rosh Hashanah means for to me, I always come back to Hinaeni - I am here. What does it mean to be truly present in our lives? Or…to quote my friend, what does it mean to be an up-fronter?
The holidays present an opportunity for the Jewish people to come together and reflect on one simple question: How can we live our lives as the best versions of ourselves every day? I believe that requires us to be actively present both physically and mentally in our lives.
As the Jewish people welcome a New Year and reflect in the 10 days between the holiest days of our year it is an opportunity to be grateful for the past year of life, take stock of our choices of the past year, seek forgiveness for the times we fell short, and plan for changes in the coming year.
A significant metaphor in the prayers on Rosh Hashana is our prayer that G-d inscribe each of us in the Book of Life for the coming year. “On Rosh Hashanah it is written and on Yom Kippur it is sealed, who shall live and who shall die…” Jews believe that we are given the opportunity of a clean page on which to write our own story at the beginning of each new year. I see this holiday as an opportunity to choose to live the ideals of Hinaeni— true presence.
We are taught that each of us individually, as well as collectively, should give prayers of gratitude and celebration while simultaneously asking G-d to guide us. Judaism is a faith whose foundation stone is free will. How we use the free will granted to us is something we are asked to carefully consider every year.
Rosh Hashanah is an opportunity to say out loud, I am present, I am here, and I will be in the front row of my life. I will not watch life pass me by nor will I let life happen to me. We cannot choose what happens to us, but we can choose how we respond. We can choose where we spend our time, treasure, and talents. I choose to be an author writing the next chapter for the year to come as I continue the journey toward becoming the best version of myself in the future.
Rosh Hashanah cannot be separated from Yom Kippur because it is during this time that we Jews around the world celebrate the joys of a good and sweet new year and also ask G-d to inscribe us in the book of life for the following year every year.