Rosh Hashanah, being one of my favorite holidays, is cause for celebration and reflection. It’s not all confetti and ball-dropping, like the cultural United States new year, though.
I love the juxtaposition of joy and somber feelings during Rosh Hashanah. We think back on our year and hope that any downfalls and shortcomings will be forgiven, any commitments broken will be overlooked, and any unintentional cause for hurt will all be forgotten with the promise of the new year.
During the two days of services many prayers, poems, psalms and declarations are chanted and sung.
The poem U’netaneh Tokef (literally “we shall ascribe holiness to this day”) is meant to strike fear into hearts:
We shall ascribe holiness to this day.
For it is awesome and terrible.
Your kingship is exalted upon it.
Your throne is established in mercy.
You are enthroned upon it in truth.
In truth You are the judge,
The exhorter, the all‑knowing, the witness,
He who inscribes and seals,
Remembering all that is forgotten.
You open the book of remembrance
Which proclaims itself,
And the seal of each person is there.
The great shofar is sounded,
A still small voice is heard.
The angels are dismayed,
They are seized by fear and trembling
As they proclaim: Behold the Day of Judgment!
For all the hosts of heaven are brought for judgment.
They shall not be guiltless in Your eyes
And all creatures shall parade before You as a troop.
As a shepherd herds his flock,
Causing his sheep to pass beneath his staff,
So do You cause to pass, count, and record,
Visiting the souls of all living,
Decreeing the length of their days,
Inscribing their judgment.
On Rosh Hashanah it is inscribed,
And on Yom Kippur it is sealed.
How many shall pass away and how many shall be born,
Who shall live and who shall die,
Who shall reach the end of his days and who shall not,
Who shall perish by water and who by fire,
Who by sword and who by wild beast,
Who by famine and who by thirst,
Who by earthquake and who by plague,
Who by strangulation and who by stoning,
Who shall have rest and who shall wander,
Who shall be at peace and who shall be pursued,
Who shall be at rest and who shall be tormented,
Who shall be exalted and who shall be brought low,
Who shall become rich and who shall be impoverished.
But repentance, prayer and righteousness avert the severe decree.
These words lead directly into the Kedushah, the prayer of the sanctification of G-d’s name.
And I love it. The U’netaneh Tokef is a favorite of mine, in a very eerie way. The haunting melody resonates when the congregation sing the Hebrew words. It conjures up the reality behind our day-to-day life. It reminds us that G-d leads and has such power. Life is fragile, fleeting.
In sharing this poem, I wanted others who do not observe Rosh Hashanah to know the power behind our New Year celebration. There are ten days of repentance, starting with Rosh Hashanah and ending with Yom Kippur. While judgement is pronounced on Rosh Hashanah, it is sealed on Yom Kippur. These Ten days are a chance to relent and seek forgiveness. We celebrate the chance for a new year, but remember that repentance, prayer, and charity shape us and can change judgement. I almost feel like Jews wish others Happy New Year to avert & even out the potential solemnity during this time.
I know this post is out of character for me. I don’t go all preachy & only mention religious traditions observed. But Rosh Hashanah speaks deeply to me.
I wish you all a happy, sweet year, no matter your religious label.