This week we will celebrate Rosh Hashana. Although it’s commonly translated as the “Jewish New Year,” Rosh Hashana isn’t just another “new year” with goal setting and vision boards. Technically, it’s not the “new year” at all; it is one of four new years in the Jewish calendar, and comes in Tishrei, the 7th month.
What is offers, however, is something much more powerful than any other “new year” provides.
Rosh Hashana provides us with a guide that we can use to enter into a year in the proper way.
It contains the step that most goal-setting and vision-planning workshops miss.
The crucial first step.
Before you can set goals, you need a vision.
Before you can create a vision, you must know what you want.
And before you can know what you want, you must know who you are.
This is the process we begin on Rosh Hashana.
The Journey of Return
Rosh Hashana is the beginning of the Aseret Yemei Teshuva. This is commonly translated as the 10 days of repentance: the ten days that starts with Rosh Hashana and ends with Yom Kippur.
If you look at the process as a whole, it begs the question: wouldn’t it be more logical to have Yom Kippur first? Yom Kippur is the day when we atone for our sins, and God decides who will live and who will die. Doesn’t it make sense to do this before we celebrate the new year?
This would seem to make more sense, if you understand Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur as separate events. But I have come to understand this period differently.
While most people translate Teshuva as Repentance, its root — s-h-v — actually means “to return.”
I like to consider the period from Rosh Hashana through Yom Kippur as the Ten Days of Return.
What does this mean?
The Disconnect of Trance
In our day to day lives, we may find ourselves caught up in anger, anxiety, fear, frustration, doubt, negative spirals and limiting beliefs. Tara Brach calls this being caught up in the “trance”: the trance of fear, doubt, or unworthiness.
When we are in trance, we may lash out at others. We become critical or judgmental. We mistreat people. We don’t give others proper attention or presence. We speak harshly to or about people. And, of course, we do the same to ourselves.
It’s not just that we say things that “we don’t mean” or “don’t really believe.”
On the contrary, one of the truisms I’ve found is that what we say in anger is usually exactly what we mean to say or what we think, despite our protests to the contrary. In anger, we remove the filters that would otherwise prevent us from saying what we think.
Rather, the things we do or say when we are locked in the trance do not reflect who we are in our truth.
When we are caught up in trance, we separate, from others and from ourselves. We leave our spiritual home. We forget that we are children of God, created in his image as a loving and compassionate beings. We disconnect from our ability to feel compassion, empathy or love — for ourselves or others.
We disconnect from the truth of who we are.
We believe those things we say in anger only because we are disconnected from our truth. If we paused to reconnect, and if we dug beneath all the layers of protection we put up to keeep ourselves safe, we would realize that we don’t really believe those things.
On Rosh Hashana, we begin the process of reconnecting to our truth — of returning to ourselves and our spiritual home.
The Call of the Shofar
Judaism is a religion filled with rituals, and one of the rituals of Rosh Hashana is that we blow the shofar. The piercing wail of the shofar is designed to be a jolt to our system — a supersized alarm to break us out of our trance and remind us of where we are.
As Rabbi Jonathan Sacks writes
[the sound of the shofar is] so piercing and strange that it wakes us out of our everyday consciousness into an awareness of being present at something vast and momentous.
Just like you might ring a bell to call in your dog or your children for dinner, the shofar is the sound that alerts us it is time to return home to our truth.
Many people treat the blaring horns of the secular new year like the sounds that kick off a track meet: a signal to be off and running in the pursuit of goals. The sound of the shofar is the opposite of that: it’s a signal to wake up out of our trance, a reminder to slow down and take stock.
Creating a Life-Changing Experience
Rabbi Sacks writes that the period from Rosh Hashana through Yom Kippur — also known as the Yamim Nora’im — the Days of Awe — “can be, and should be, a life-changing experience.”
Let that sink in for a moment.
When was the last time you heard someone describe January 1 in those terms?
Probably never. Our culture tells us to zoom right in and get started on our “goals.” Race to the finish line.
But setting goals and creating a vision board are not life-changing experiences.
The life-changing experience is what happens before we set goals or create a vision.
The shofar calls us to dig deeper than “what do I want in the coming year?” It ushers in a period of intense introspection and reflection through which we illuminate and reconnect with our identity.
This is the process of Teshuva: when we return to who we are in our core, when we reconnect with our loving truth.
Who we are. What we value. Our purpose.
Without this, goals are meaningless.
Rosh Hashana gives us this crucial first step.