The Day of Change (Rosh Hashanah 2020)

Rav Elisha Friedman

Rav Elisha Friedman

Time has a consistent rhythm to it, which if we’re not careful can sometimes feel as if it’s all part of one continuous chain. One day turns into the next, one year melts, seamlessly, into the next one, the hours and days and weeks all effortlessly coalescing into one long uninterrupted flow. 

One of the best qualities of the Jewish calendar is the demarcation it forces between different times. We become conscious that each day is different from the one before, with its own rituals and rites. Sunday marks a different week from the preceding Friday, Shabbat being the dividing line which separates one week from the next. So too, years don’t just melt into each other since Rosh Hashanah creates a clear division between the one now ending and the one beginning. 

Each year we take the time to understand what happened this past year and to prepare for the coming one. But many years it feels as if the division is artificial, there is no real line separating one year from the next, each one being fairly uniform, if we’re so blessed. In normal times only the occasional happy milestone, or G-d forbid a tragedy, differentiate the years from each other. 

If it’s hard to notice the changes in regular years, it is even more difficult this year. In the age of Coronavirus, time is a funny concept. The days melt into each other in a way they hadn’t before, for many of us “schedules” were an obsolete concept for much of this past year. Activities which used to demarcate one day from the next disappeared. It feels even less likely than in previous years that the day after Rosh Hashanah will be much different than the day before. Both will involve masks and social distancing and the whole host of new terminology (for example, quarantining, pandemic, contact tracing, etc.) that we’ve all gotten accustomed to. 

But there is perhaps a more intriguing thought experiment, if we compare not this past year with the upcoming year, but rather the year before this past year, two years ago, to this past year, then a very different picture emerges. Last Rosh Hashanah, as we generally do, we believed the coming year would look much like the year before it did. But how wrong we were. The year we have just finished looked very different from the years before it did. We have learned that not every year looks similar to the one before. Some years are radically different. It was only our limited human minds which made us too complacent, we forgot how quickly things might change, and now change came quickly.

So we have arrived at a theme for this past year, as lethargic as it felt, and it is a theme we are all aware of: change! Ironically, it is the same theme which is so central to every Rosh Hashanah.   The year of Coronavirus has shown us, beyond doubt, how much things can and do change, how susceptible we are to the travails of the world. The world and our lives and our communities change rapidly and thoroughly, and we need to be prepared for whatever comes our way. We have little control over the nature of those changes, but we do have control over how prepared we are to respond. 

The changes this year have been the type we don’t like to experience, the type which upends the good in the world, the routines we have developed over many years. This upheaval has brought death and illness and destruction in its wake. It is far from the kind of change we hope for on Rosh Hashanah. And yet it is illustrative of the central message of Rosh Hashanah: that change, good change, the kind which marks our humanity and ability to grow, is possible.

All the time that we believed change was, if not impossible, certainly highly unlikely, we were stuck in the unhealthy routines and habits which characterize human life. Each year brings with it new traits and dynamics we struggle to change, fresh challenges we fail to live up to. Unable to break free, to begin anew, we made our peace with the destructive behaviors. 

But Coronavirus has brought with it the great lesson of just how much things can and do change, for the bad, but also, we may infer, for the good. Just as last Rosh Hashanah, we had no idea how unusual this past year would be, how much destruction and fear it would unleash, so too every Rosh Hashanah we have little awareness of how different the coming year may be, if only we know how to properly harness the coming year and transform it into one of growth.   

But how did Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, become the day of change, par excellence? The great medieval commentator, Rabbeinu Nissim (the Ran), explains how Rosh Hashanah, the first of Tishrei, was chosen to be the Day of Judgment. One of Rabbeinu Nissim’s two approaches will concern us here. Rabbeinu Nissim cites the Rabbinic tradition that the date of Creation was the 25th of Elul, six days before the first of Tishrei, Rosh Hashanah. Accordingly, the sixth day of Creation, Rosh Hashanah, was the day that the first human beings, Adam and Eve, were created. According to the Rabbis, Adam and Eve sinned by eating from the forbidden tree the same day they were created, that first Rosh Hashanah, and then God judged them, all on that very same day.   

So Rosh Hashanah as the Day of Judgment began on that first Rosh Hashanah of Creation, when the first humans sinned and were judged. But let us note also what had happened on that day, not simply sin and judgement, but also Creation. It was a busy day. It was the day when for the first time humanity appeared on the surface of the world. It was a day, in effect, that momentous change came to the world.   

Theologians and scientists have spilled much ink to understand the Biblical story of creation in light of modern science. But that need not concern us here. The theological message is clear: Humanity as a concept appeared one day, when the day before there had been nothing. The day before there was an empty planet, and then the day after the world was populated with people. When God was looking for a day of judgement, He wisely chose the day that was the birthday of the concept of “humanity,” the day which symbolized, more than any, the immense power of the world for renewal and creation. The New Year also made sense on this day of birthdays, a good time to begin the new year too.  

Rosh Hashanah then at its root is the day everything changes. The day before there were no people, the next day everything in the world had suddenly changed. What a tremendous concept for us to remember on this day! In one day a whole new world can be created, problems which have plagued us all year can be suddenly over. The world may go from being empty to being full in one day, or certainly in a week or during a full year. Should anyone ever question whether or not we have the capacity to change, we can simply point to that first Rosh Hashanah, when the world went from empty to inhabited, when new vistas and futures were opened, and this is the proof of the infinite potential we each of us have for renewal. 

This year we may also point to the past year of Coronavirus to show the endless capacity we as humans have for change, and that high likelihood that change in some fashion will come. Change is all around us. Coronavirus is the most obvious example, since it has upended jobs, schools, shuls and hobbies. But communities too are always in flux. Sometimes they decline, sometimes they grow, sometimes they are torn apart by needless strife, sometimes they generously reach out and give back to the world in an outsized way. 

We are lucky that our shul has experienced a year of growth, reversing a trend many similar shuls are struggling against. We of course have many more growing pains ahead of us before we’re in a comfortable place, but on balance this year has been better than the alternative of decline would have been. We each of us are guardians of one of the first and foundational Orthodox communities in the United States, a community which has served as a beacon for so much of what came later in larger communities. And while the demographics and challenges have changed drastically, communities such as ours still play an outsized role in the future of American Orthodoxy. For those who doubt that change can come, that revitalization is possible for a long-established community, we remind them of that moment in human history when there was an empty planet, and the next day human life had begun.

But it’s not just communities which are able to reinvent and revitalize. We each have habits and baggage we carry with us, believing somewhere deep that there’s little we can do to change it. The story of Creation reminds us again and again of our capacity to create and renew, to build a fresh start for ourselves and those around us. When we are tempted to doubt whether we can truly change ingrained habits, we remember that today is the anniversary of that great day when humanity first appeared in an empty world.    

The significant threat of Coronavirus will end at some point, somehow, and the world will require rebuilding, not fully, but in a dramatic way. It will be the model of Rosh Hashanah which will guide us. One day there was a world, when the day before there had not been. Each day, each year brings with it the possibility of renewal and growth. What has gone on in the past does not dictate the future. 

This year will bring with it, unquestionably challenges, but there will also be blessings and happinesses. But our mission is clear: just as a world was built all those millenia ago, we too will rebuild a new world each day.