Repentance, Renewal and Rosh HaShana

Repentance, Renewal and Rosh HaShana

The summer always comes to an end before I realize it. We get ready for a new school year, and then the holidays come in a rush one after the next, starting with Rosh HaShana, the Jewish New Year. It, among other things, commemorates the traditional date of humanity’s creation. It is a time for increased introspection and self-examination as observant Jews gather before Rosh HaShana to recite prayers of penitence.Yet the Jewish New Year does not mark immediate physical or spiritual renewal. Instead, it is but the first day of a ten-day period, the Days of Awe, a time for collective and individual reflection, summoning us to national and personal change in direction, culminating in Yom Kippur -- The Day of Atonement.

A few years ago, some friends and I discussed the strange connection between the Torah passage we read on this holiday (the binding of Isaac, Genesis 22:1-19), the celebration of Rosh HaShana, the repentance and redemption of the holiday season, and the creation of humankind. While I struggle with Genesis 22 and the violence within it, it is remarkable while it is disturbing. If Abraham were to obey God and sacrifice Isaac, Abraham’s future would be cut off. Abraham’s decision to obey, to sacrifice Isaac to the God who gave him, would signal the end of promise, the end of the covenant.

Some interpretations of this passage suggest that Abraham knew that God would save Isaac from the fate he demanded. One midrash [1] suggests that Isaac died as soon as Abraham touched his knife to Isaac’s neck, and immediately thereafter, God returned Isaac’s soul to his body. Abraham released Isaac from his bindings and Isaac proclaimed, “Blessed are You, Lord, who resurrects the dead,” foreshadowing that all death will result in resurrection. These are interesting interpretations that suggest the newness that can come when we let go of something close to us.

We see in Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice that which was most dear to him the connection to repentance -- just as Abraham was willing to obey God in his willingness to sacrifice his present and future in Isaac, our acts of repentance should be soul-searching and sacrificial, requiring us to change our present and alter our potential future. We need to question our ideas of what will be and what could be, our most cherished ideologies and theologies, even what we perceive to be our covenantal promises.

In these acts of repentance is the connection to redemption -- only in sacrificing and redirecting certain actions, beliefs and dreams can we find redemption, which cannot proceed, but only follow repentance. In this is creation renewed, where we have the opportunity to go forth and carry our human responsibility toward one another and our world, for we are repenting, and we have the opportunity to begin anew.

If you choose to celebrate or find significance in this holiday, may it be for you a time of reflection, redirection, redemption and new creation.


[1] Midrash “renders a creative reading of a biblical text that consciously takes the chosen words and explodes their context to infuse their obvious meaning with a sense of depth,” Lawrence Perlman, “Revelation and Prayer: Heschel’s Meeting with God.”

 




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