This year, we celebrate Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, on the evening of Sept. 18 through the evening of Sept. 20.
Rosh Hashanah means, in Hebrew, “the head of the year.” “Rosh” means “head.” Now let us examine “Shanah.” It does mean “year,” but the noun “Shanah” is based on the verb “Shaneh,” which means “to change.” So, Rosh Hashanah can be interpreted as meaning “If you use your head, you can change.”
And on the New Year, we desire to improve, to change for the better. We get another example of this concept from the word “shofar,” the ram’s horn that we blow on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. The root word or the verb for “shofar,” in Hebrew, is “leshaper,” which means, “to improve.”
Our tradition claims that we can change, we can adapt and we can adjust our way of life to unforeseen circumstances.
This year, this idea takes a drastic interpretation with the way Jews all over the world are going to celebrate the High Holidays; it is going to be different, very different than past years.
Because of the pandemic that has spread like wildfire, many congregations canceled services altogether. Here in town, we are going to make many changes in our rituals to ensure the safety of our members and to minimize the health risk. Our members will have a choice between viewing our service via Zoom or actually attending services in person with strict guidelines of social distancing while wearing masks the entire service.
Rosh Hashanah revives fond memories for many of us; it could be the gathering time of the entire family, a special New Year resolution that changed our lives, or a spiritual discovery about ourselves, inspired by the awe-inspiring services.
For me, from my early childhood till the present day, when I think of Rosh Hashanah, one of the first things that comes to my mind is the shofar. This association of the ram’s horn with the holiday started for me many years ago when I was growing up in Jerusalem.
Near my home, there were two synagogues, one for the Sephardim (Jews of Middle Eastern origin) and one for the Ashkenazim (Jews from European origin). Every year, the biggest question among the children in my neighborhood was which synagogue would blow the shofar first. I can still recall vividly how the tension would rise moments before the shofar was sounded, and when it finally did, how we stood up silently, and our mood was both somber and joyous at the same time.
We knew that it was Rosh Hashanah (the head of the New Year), but it was also “Yom Hadin,” the Day of Judgment. These mixed feelings of joy and happiness with solemnity and seriousness have accompanied me since then in other events.
We all remember the Six-Day War in 1967 when the Israeli paratroopers freed the Western Wall. However, the most powerful memory from that event was when Rabbi Goren, the Chief Army Rabbi of Israel, joined the soldiers and blew the shofar at the wall.
Another event that enters our collective memory was the release of the hostages in Entebbe (Uganda) in 1975. When their airplane finally landed in Israel after a successful rescue mission, they were welcomed into Israel with the sounding of the shofar.
Jewish history reveals to us a few other occasions in which the shofar was involved. The first time, of course, is when the Torah tells us the story of the Aqedah of Yitzhaq (The binding of Isaac) as it is written, “And Abraham lifted his eyes and behold, a ram was caught in the thicket by his horns.” Later on, when the Jews received the Torah on Mount Sinai, the shofar was sounded aloud.
All these events, modern and biblical, were very important and serious ones: for Abraham, our father, for the desert generation and for us. However, they were also happy occasions. They taught us the lesson that for our lives to be happy and fulfilling, we must challenge ourselves. They taught us that there is a light at the end of the tunnel, but we must walk a long way to reach it.
So, this year when you hear the shofar, think about its message and the long history associated with it. Think about how you can turn this serious call into a joyous one.
I want to wish each one of you a year of health, peace and happiness. May the coming year be as sweet as honey for you. Le Shana Tova Tikatavu. May you be inscribed in the Book of Life.
Rabbi Avi Perets of Temple Emanu-El, 606 65th Ave. N., Myrtle Beach, can be reached at 843-450-4923 or email@example.com.