Returning to Basics – New Beginnings for Rosh Hashanah 5781 

apples and honey, along with the words "shana tova"

By Rabbi Bryan Kinzbrunner,
Director of Religious and Spiritual Services

Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, begins this Friday night, Sept. 18, 2020.  In this topsy-turvy year, I find myself both looking backwards and forwards.  The second half of 5780 and the beginning of 5781 finds the world continuing to grapple with both the short term and long-term ramifications of the COVID-19 pandemic and other upheavals that upset our sense of balance and focus.  In looking forward to the Jewish year 5781, what messages can we find in Rosh Hashanah that can uplift us as we continue through this challenging time? 

One focus of Rosh Hashanah is the confrontation with our limited amount of control This is exemplified in the famous 11th century prayer U’Netaneh Tokef, which describes how we are judged for the upcoming year, with our fate sealed.  Yet, we still have a modicum of control, as expressed in the phrase, Teshuvah (Repentance/Return), Tefillah (prayer), Tzedakah (Charity), Removes the harshness of the decree.Just when we think all is pre-destined, we are tasked each year to return to the basic building blocks of a spiritual and meaningful life. Teshuvah, Tefillah and Tzedakah give us a three-pronged formula for grappling with the seeming randomness, the seeming uncertainty in the world. 

Teshuvah is the process of reconnecting with our inner self. Amid crisis, we often feel a loss for not reaching our fullest potential.  By taking the time to “return” into ourselves, we can explore how we envision our ideal selves, finding the way back on the path to reaching our goals.   

Tefillah, prayer, represents how we relate to Gd.  During times of fear and anxiety, many will turn back to faith and religion to help guide us forward.  When we reconnect spiritually, we are able to change the lens with which we see life’s more difficult and chaotic moments.   

Tzedakah, charity, represents how we interact with those around us.  It is very easy during times of major upheaval to just turn inward, protecting ourselves and our most immediate surroundings.  While it is of utmost importance to make sure we are involved in our self-care, we must also put in effort to better the society around us.  Through giving of oneself to others in all forms, we gain a deeper appreciation of the varied degrees to which the chaos and uncertainty affect us and how we rise above that to create a new stability.   

Through this formula, we can understand how these practices can remove the “harshness of the decree.”  If we go back to the basic values of our lives, we change our story and how we see that which is occurring around us. We might not have control of what life brings, but we have control of how we experience these events.   

As we enter Rosh Hashanah 5781, may this be a year in which, through our care for ourselves, care for our relationship with Gd and spirituality, and care for others, we find a renewed sense of the prime values of life. 

May 5781 be a sweet and happy New Year that finds the chaos coming to an end.