Halacha, or Jewish law, literally means the way of walking, and Rosh Hashana is about checking your bearings and taking new paths where necessary.
The Hassidic Rebbe Haim of Tzanz told this parable: A person had been wandering about in the forest for several days, unable to find a way out. Finally in the distance, he saw another person approaching him, and his heart filled with joy. He thought to himself: “Now surely I shall find a way out of the forest.” When they neared each other, he asked the other person, “Brother, will you please tell me the way out of the forest?”
The other replied: “Brother, I also do not know the way out, for I too have been wandering about here for many days. But this much I can tell you. Do not go the way I have gone, for I know that is not the way. Now come, let us search for the way out together.” (Adapted from S.Y. Agnon, The Days of Awe)
Read this story at your Rosh Hashana table, and discuss your hopes for new direction in life. Think about a new path you would like to explore this coming year, or let others know about an old path you have tried which they might best avoid.
In his diaries Franz Kafka, the 20th century Czech Jewish writer, reflected on the difficulty of finding our way and yet our eternal hope:
If we knew we were on the right road, having to leave it would mean endless despair. But we are on a road that only leads to a second one and then to a third one and so forth. And the real highway will not be sighted for a long, long time, perhaps never. So we drift in doubt. But also in an unbelievable, beautiful diversity. Thus the accomplishment of hopes remains an always unexpected miracle. But in compensation, the miracle remains forever possible.
The poet and Bible scholar Joel Rosenberg speaks of Rosh Hashana as homecoming, rather than as journeying:
The Hebrew word for year – Shana – means change. But its sense is two-fold: on the one hand, change of cycle, repetition (Hebrew, l’shanot reiterate, from sh’naim, two), but on the other hand, it means difference (as in the [the Pesach Seder when we ask] mah nishtana? How is this night different?) We are the same, we are different. We repeat, we learn, we recapitulate. We encounter something new. “Shana Tova!” means, “Have a good change!”
And yet, how familiar is this time! The chant, the faces, the dressed-up mood, the Hebrew letter, the calling on the same God, the words, the blessings, the bread, the apples, the honey, the wine – all are the same, and yet completely new. We meet ourselves again and for the first time.
A year that begins anew is also the fruit of the year that preceded. Good or bad, it has made us wiser. It will not constrain us. We choose from it what we want and need like gifts we brought from journeys. Rosh Hashana is always like coming home – just as Pesach was always going on a journey.
How do we find our Divine Parent who is in Heaven? How do we find our Parent who is in Heaven? By good deeds and the study of Torah.
How does the Blessed Holy One find us – through love, through brotherhood, through respect, through companionship, through truth, through peace, through bending the knee, through humility, through more study, through less commerce, through the personal service to our teachers, through discussion among the students, through a good heart, through decency, through No that is really No, and through Yes that is really Yes. (Midrash Seder Eliyahu Rabbah 23)
Adapted from Noam Zion’s Rosh Hashana seder. A complete version of the Seder Rosh Hashana can be found here.