Rosh Hashana - The centrality of History 

If you were to stand at the base of a mighty mountain, at the front door of an extravagant palace, or an inch away from a sweeping tapestry, you might know that you were standing in the presence of something special, but you would fail to grasp its greatness. A single stone of the Kotel or a solitary chunk of rock at the base of Mount Everest can fail to impress. Retreat to a point at which you can take in the magnificence in its entirety and only then will you be able to truly appreciate what your eyes behold. 

On Rosh Hashana, we spend a great deal of time mentioning remembrance. Indeed, a centerpiece of the main prayer service is called Zichronot, or remembrances, during which we invoke many heroic deeds of our ancestors in the Bible (such as the righteousness of Noah, the self-sacrifice of Isaac and the ironclad faith of the Jews in the Desert). We beseech God to remember these great individuals - and in their merit, to remember us too. Like all compositions of prayer, these paragraphs are not addressed solely to God - they are equally written with the intention of impacting each of us. While we will never be able to fully comprehend the notion of God ‘remembering’, this focus on memory and on memories teaches us a crucial lesson about the underlying meaning of Jewish living. 

To be a Jew is to remember. To actively remember. Zachor. 

This principle constitutes the essence of our existence and permeates throughout the contours of our calendar. Every Friday night we lift a glass of wine to remember that there is a Creator behind creation, every Seder Night we engage our senses to relive and remember the salvation from oppression of the Exodus, every Tisha B’av we remember and commemorate the tragedies of a long, painful history, and every Yom Ha’Atzmaut, we remember and celebrate our miraculous national resurrection. 

To be a Jew is to set aside time for intense and active remembrance - affording us an opportunity to reflect upon our history, our mission, and our lofty purpose in this world. As Jews, we must learn the art of contextualization - to orient our internal paradigms until we perceive ourselves not only as individuals (which is important in and of itself), but as an essential element of an enormous tapestry of breathtaking beauty and irreducible meaning. 

Rosh Hashana, as the first moment of the Jewish year, represents the opportunity to put this into action. This is the time to step back and contextualize. The ‘memories’ that we invoke in our prayers compel us to recalibrate, to take the time to remind ourselves to see beyond our own interests and understand our larger contexts as we create new memories. This process reminds us that we do not stand alone before God - rather, we are linked to vast networks that imbue our lives with purpose, significance and commitment. We remind ourselves that we are part of a global Jewish community that lives in a time of both obstacles and opportunity, and therefore we pray for the strength to overcome the challenges. We remind ourselves that we are part of the magnificent Jewish story, a narrative replete with heroines and heroes, whose faith and righteousness serve to guide our own decisions in the service of God and our people. We remind ourselves, finally, that we are part of humankind as a whole, whose peace and prosperity we yearn and pray for every day. 

Through remembering the greater context in which we live our lives, we give meaning to our existence that exceeds the fleeting pursuit of our own individual ends alone. This expanded consciousness and broadened perspective enables us to connect to something infinitely greater than ourselves. 

Next week, on Rosh Hashana, may we merit to truly grasp the greatness of our existence, to experience this deeper level of meaning throughout the upcoming year, and to spread our light throughout the entire world. 

Shana Tova Umetuka!

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