Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Rosh Hashanah: Renewing and Changing

In Hebrew, words are founded on roots made up of three consonants that contain the essence of the words' meanings.  Those roots blossom into a wide variety of words when vowels, prefixes, and suffixes are added, and much biblical interpretation is inspired by the relationship between words that share a root.  For instance, the first word in Genesis is beresheit, which means "in the beginning." The root of beresheit is the letters ר א ש (reish aleph shin), which means "first" or "head."  This might sound familiar from yesterday's post, as ר א ש is also the root of rosh, as in Rosh Hashanah, or "head of the year."

I mentioned in that post that shana, "year," comes from the Hebrew word for "repeat."  However, the root of shanaש נ א (shin nun aleph), also leads to the word shinui, which means "change."  As we begin a new year, we take stock of where we've been and how we want to continue, and we're faced with the opportunity to decide if we want to repeat or change our thoughts, words, and deeds.
Said Rav Yitzhak, "There are four actions that alter a person's destiny: giving tzedakah, crying out to God, changing one's name, and changing one's actions." And some say, moving. - Talmud Rosh Hashanah 15b
The rabbis at Sixth & I, the synagogue I attend, explain the above passage of biblical commentary like this:
"And some say?"  The Rabbis don't question Rav Yitzhak's first four suggestions, so why are they ambivalent about whether packing up and moving could truly change a person's future?  In many ways, physically leaving a place is the most straightforward way to alter one's circumstances.  Why do they doubt moving's efficacy as a spiritual tool?
They may have realized what many of us also know to be true—wherever a person goes, she takes herself with her.
 This is the struggle of the High Holy Days: in order to change our circumstances, we must, most often, first change ourselves.
To that end, here is a suggestion for your new year: Aspire to "move yourself" as the Talmud suggests—not in external circumstance, but in perspective.  Be like Hillel, who said, "Do not judge your friend until you've stood in his place" (Pirkei Avot 2:4).  Stand in the place of those around us, both close to us and far from us; try to inhabit their perspective, transcend our own boundaries, and in doing so find justice and joy.
This is, without a doubt, a challenge for all of us.  It is daunting to step out of our comfort zones, to approach issues from another's viewpoint, and to entertain the idea that a differing opinion can be valid.  But change does does not come from a place of stability.   It comes from doubting, from debating, from exploring.  It comes from movement.

I included a quote from Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 at the top of this post because we're in the midst of Banned Books Week in the US.  (Ironically enough, this novel about books being banned has been censored repeatedly since it was published.)  Keeping the spirit of Rosh Hashanah and that of Banned Books Week in mind, I hope you will take advantage of this window of opportunity to assess the year that has passed and the possibilities for the one ahead.  I hope you will examine how you might challenge the world around you as many of the books on the banned list have done.  I hope you will seek out the second side of the question and in doing so, as the rabbis say, find justice and joy.

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  1. Fahrenheit 451 was one of the first books I absolutely fell in love with. I mean as in couldn't read it enough times fell in love with. I read it in English class as a freshman and studied it in more depth with my 11th grade English teacher, who became one of my biggest role models when it came to free thought. It's a rare and difficult thing for people to be able to walk that fine line between intellectual flexibility and moral rigidity when it comes to hearing opposing sides, but it is absolutely the thing we must strive for. If we can't at least dream of being intellectually flexible enough to discuss and contemplate difficult issues, and within that, maintain morals that state we shall treat all people fairly, ethically, as human beings, then what's the point of dreaming?

  2. What a lovely post! It might mean that I'm in dire need of some moving and change, but I really enjoyed reading this.

  3. While I don't have any sort of religious affiliation, I most certainly have a certain spirituality, and it falls incredibly in line with what you wrote here. This time of year is always a time of huge reflection for me. I'm not sure if it's the change of the season, or if it is because it truly is the beginning of a new year for me as I celebrated my birthday on Tuesday. Either way, this time of year always becomes a time of thought and change and movement. I begin thinking and taking action on whatever needs to occur in my life. I take it as an opportunity to build new perspective and dive off the high board into something out of my comfort zone, almost so that I feel like I'm living again. I find myself being more intentional, yet at the same time, more bold about my decisions. I'm happy I read your post this morning as I am in these stages of change and movement in my own life right now. This was perfect!

  4. I don't think we read it in school - my dad gave it to me the first time I read it, and I think it's one of the gifts he's proudest of exactly because of the reasons you list here.


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