Rabbi David Azen: Happy Jewish New Year!
September 1, 2016
The purpose of creation, according to the Book of Proverbs, is actually to experience bliss, joy and delight.
As Wisdom (Chokhma in Hebrew, Sophia in Greek) relates in Chapter 8: "Before the world was formed, I was with the Creator as a designer (artist/architect); a source of delights day by day." It's as if God created a virtual reality program to fashion a blueprint for life, and the program lets us know what its purpose was.
This may come as a bit of a surprise, even to some in the Jewish community who think that feeling guilt and beating one's breast in repentance on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, is what the High Holy days are all about. However, the point of it all is to clear out anything that would get in the way of us being able to be happy and enjoy life.
The way this plays out goes as follows: Rosh Hashanah, the New Year, starts on the new moon around the beginning of fall — early October this year. We remind ourselves of the sweetness of life with apples and honey, but also call to mind the unresolved failings of the past year. That ushers in the "Ten Days of (Re)turning," during which we are to apologize and perform any acts of repentance and restoration for errors we have made with other people.
On Yom Kippur itself, we empty out — literally — by fasting for 24 hours, and by confessing our mistakes and asking forgiveness from the Holy One, the Master of Mercy.
"It is not the death of sinners God desires, but rather that the sinner repents and returns to life," the holyday prayerbook reminds us. By the end of the day, when we go through the process fully, we come away feeling lighter, cleaner and, even with hunger pangs, feeling like the year really is a new start.
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Then comes the holiday that these 10 days are really the preparation for, the real purpose of the whole season — again, this will come as a surprise to some — the Feast of Booths, or Sukkot in Hebrew, which begins on the full moon of the month. All of that repenting and confessing and seeking forgiveness is so that we can fulfill the Biblical commandment to "rejoice in your festival."
In the ancient temple, Sukkot was a blowout party, literally a kind of Burning Man/high society champagne type of event, believe it or not. Today, we build a temporary structure that reminds us of the fragility of life, a way of motivating us to "seize the day" and take nothing for granted. We are directed to be joyful for seven days straight, barring legitimate crises and terrible sorrows.
So the question we ought to ask ourselves before the beginning of the New Year is: How free are we to choose joy in any moment — not based on circumstances lining up perfectly, not based on anything in particular, not based on a great meal or sunset or our team winning — just because we are human beings with free will? Whatever comes to mind that would get in our way, that is what we need to work on clearing up and out so we can return to the real purpose of our existence — celebrating being here.
Whatever your faith, may the year to come be full of health, happiness and delight.
David Azen is the new Rabbi at Congregation B'nai Harim at the Nevada County Jewish Community Center, 506 Walsh St., Grass Valley.