Violence is up in Israel again. We have 1,000 dead Americans from Iraq. The presidential election is anything but on higher ground. Oodles of people are out of work—and the economy still has a long way to come back. The impact of the hurricane in Florida is still major. Then there is the school in Russia. And all of this is against a background of rising anti-Semitism in Europe and Russia. The world seems pretty ugly at the moment—and despite the rhetoric from both presidential candidates about “the best days being ahead,” this depressing background is the one in which we are opening our Jewish schools this year. It is hard to watch the news and get ready to welcome “a happy new year.”
But that difficulty is the whole point to Rosh ha-Shanah. The High Holidays have a simple message: “People can change.” Rosh ha-Shanah begins this process by saying, “You get to start over—try again.” It is part of a larger Jewish narrative.
On the 17th of Tammuz the Ten Commandments were shattered. On Tisha B’av, the ninth of Av, the spies brought back a report that “we cannot conquer the land because the residents are giants.” Later two Temples were destroyed on this same date. The two essential sins happened on these dates. The 17th of Tammuz is the sin of the Golden Calf, idolatry. Essentially, the belief that we can create God and decide what God demands. Tisha B’av was lack of faith, lack of trust in the self, and lack of trust in God’s help. It is giving up on God’s mission. Almost every sin boils down to one of these two primal sins. After Tisha B’av comes Rosh ha-Shanah. The Temple is destroyed, but we still go on, be begin to build again. That building happens on Sukkot. We begin again. We are forgiven. We rebuild. That is the spiritual pattern of the high holidays.
This year as we return to our schools and our classrooms we have an obligation to teach about beginning again. Judaism’s message is that people can change, the world can be repaired. Unlike Buddhism that believes that the world is a giant wheel that goes nowhere, Judaism believes in history. The big obligation this fall is to teach hope. Rosh ha-Shanah is all about belief in the future.