Rosh Hashanah and Healing
BY RABBI CHAIM COWEN
The danger of repeating things is that over time, we stop noticing them. The interesting houses and magnificent trees we encounter on our daily walk eventually lose their charm and grandeur. The unique qualities of our family and friends are ignored in the rigmarole of our daily routines. The texts of Torah are no different. Reading them week in and week out, we lose sight of the nuanced lives of our ancestors, the poetry of our laws and the stark beauty of the Hebrew script. In the words of Soren Kierkegaard, “There were countless generations which knew by rote, word for word, the story of Abraham – how many were made sleepless by it?”
Teshuvah is such a word. Repeated so regularly, mentioned so much, uttered so casually, it has lost all its meaning. It means to be reflective, to change, to examine one’s past. However, deeper than that, teshuvah means to recover. Recovery is not just from wrongs that one has committed, but also from wrongs that were committed to us. Teshuvah means taking back control of our lives, irrespective of the choices made by others to harm us.
It is for this reason that Aviva Zornberg, a contemporary Torah scholar, writes in her The Murmuring Deep that the story of the Akeidah is read on Rosh Hashanah. Avraham suffered a deep trauma in his youth. As the Midrash points out, Avraham was turned over to the pagan monarch, Nimrod, by his own father, to be put to death for his ‘crime’ of believing in one G-d. Avraham survived the fires of Nimrod, but didn’t survive the trauma of knowing his father wanted him dead. The purpose of the Akeidah, as Zornberg puts it, was therapy. Avraham needed to retrace his fears, relive them, and this time come out unscathed.
There’s much more to it than that, of course; you can’t explain the Akeidah in a short paragraph, and I recommend reading Zornberg’s essay yourself. But the key teaching is relevant to us all. This Rosh Hashanah, unbind yourself. Confront a deep fear, set aside an insecurity, repair a lost relationship. Teshuvah is about healing, and it is only with a healthy body and a healthy mind that we can do the tasks that G-d has set us upon this earth to do.
But teshuvah is more than just recovery. Two of the key markers of time are the month, chodesh (חֹדֶשׁ) and the year, shana (שָׁנָה). These two words can have other meanings as well: the same root word expresses itself as chadash (חָדָשׁ), meaning ‘new’, and yashan (יָשָׁן), meaning ‘old’.
There’s something to this, and I believe it’s at the core of growth, which is what time is truly about. To grow you need to be both ‘new’ and ‘old’. To be new is to innovate, to break from past shackles and reinvent ourselves, to recover from the scars of the past and open the door to a better future. To be old is to be steeped in history and memory, to hold onto the wisdom of generations and relive the experiences of our nation. To approach the future emboldened and motivated by the sacrifices of our ancestors.
Each of these alone is powerful and compelling, but unhealthy. Traveling forward with no past is bound to lead you nowhere in particular. Remaining in a world of memory won’t bring the dreams of days-gone-by to fruition. On Rosh Hashanah we are introspective but also forward thinking. We look at the year that has passed, but also at the year ahead. We embrace the ‘old’ while charting a path towards the ‘new’.
May this be a year of healing. A year in which rifts within our people, and those between all peoples, are healed, and perceived rifts between us and our Creator are mended, forever.
Rabbi Chaim Cowen is Deputy Principal at Leibler Yavneh College and PhD candidate at VU College of Law.