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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

The Real Meaning of Rosh Hashanah

Published: September 21, 2012
Section: Opinions

We are in the midst of celebrating the Jewish New Year, year 5773. Rosh Hashanah, which literally translates to “Head of the Year,” is observed during the course of two days and celebrates the creation of the world. It is the beginning of the Jewish High Holidays, arriving before Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.

A traditional greeting during Rosh Hashanah is, “L’shana Tova U’Metukah,” which is Hebrew
for a “good and sweet new year.” It is customary that Jews eat sweet foods on Rosh
Hashanah to wish for a sweet year, including apples and honey, honey cake and
raisin challah.

I often find myself asking a lot of questions on this holiday. It sets a time to question
and reflect on what you have done in the past year, but it also raises questions about
what you want to accomplish in the upcoming year. Sometimes these questions are
technical, such as inquiring about the significance of the shofar or the meaning of a
prayer. But more often than not, I find myself asking questions that are larger and
much more open-ended.

What does it mean to be Jewish? And how can anyone answer that question even remotely in
the same way? This year I found myself asking these questions after listening to my rabbi’s sermon during High Holiday services at my nearby synagogue in Wellesley. He addressed subjects regarding religion, spirituality and the importance of creating your own connection to both. He talked about living in this fast-paced world, and said that in this day and age it seems as though we are so concentrated on being “on-the-go” that we don’t take enough time to focus on the present. We are so focused on preparing for the future world that we are forgetting to fix our current world.

I felt most connected to his sermon when he talked about creating your own
meaning of religion and spirituality. On Rosh Hashanah, it is tradition that we
attend synagogue for two and a half hours or more, and pray for a sweet and healthy
year. But why? Does physically attending synagogue force us to reflect on the past
year? Or do we only partake in this act because it is what we are expected to do?

My Rabbi urged the congregation to explore a new meaning for themselves in
religion and spirituality in this upcoming year. As the world advances in technology
and business, so does the world of religion and spirituality. The increasing
popularity of spirituality practices such as meditation and yoga allow people to find
faith and meaning in their own individual way.

While traditions are still an important aspect of observing religion, people will
always find new ways of connecting. This could mean hosting a family dinner once a month, or even sitting on a beach somewhere in silence. Whatever it might be, the point is that it is your practice and you have the right to express that in any way that you want.

I wish that everyone could see religion in this way; that it is a practice intended
to be altered in some way, shape or form by your own desires. Due to the fact that there are different sects of every religion that vary in strictness, I know that this is
not realistic to say. But even in a circumstance where you are tied to strict rules, I would
hope that you find some room to make your own choices and take pride in making
decisions for yourself.

I recently had a conversation with a friend here at Brandeis who is a practicing Modern Orthodox Jew. I asked him about his transition to college and whether or not he
questioned practicing the religion. I was surprised to hear him say that when
he first got to Brandeis, he felt lost, in that he had no one forcing any rules upon him.
When he first arrived, even though he knew of the Orthodox community that existed
here, he felt that no one understood his transition. It was at that moment that he
realized that his religion and practice were choices, and that he had decisions to make about
how he wanted to continue to act.

His comment stuck with me and connects to my story perfectly. Before my friend
arrived at college, he never questioned or pushed the limits of his religion. It was
never a choice, although he did not know anything different. For the first time in his
life, he was given the opportunity to make a decision about his religion. Although he
is still a practicing Modern Orthodox Jew, he now makes his own decisions and often
questions what he can and cannot do. He is aware that at any moment he could
reconstruct his beliefs and he takes pride in having that capability.

I would like to urge my peers at Brandeis to make these choices and find these
connections in the upcoming year. It is important to recognize that there is no right
or wrong way to practice and that there is no harm in trying more than one way to
feel connected.

My Rabbi’s sermon made me question my own practice and how I might alter it for the New Year and I urge you all to do the same.