I was talking to the author Scott Turow the other day—oh, did I just drop a name? I can drop more. On the same day I spoke to Dave Barry, Michelle Kaufman, Laura Barry, Eric Brandt, Deborah Warren, Elaine Petrocelli, and Beyoncé. Beyoncé says “hi.”
Scott mentioned that it was Rosh Hashana—the Jewish New Year—and wished me a “sweet new year.” Later in the day my sister-in-law Michelle, who is also Jewish, sent me a picture of apple and honey from their dinner table in Miami, where my brother Dave was apparently turning various shades of purple from eating the world’s hottest horseradish dabbed on gefilte fish. Dave was raised Presbyterian. Gefilte fish is not a staple of the Presbyterian diet.
The Western, secular New Year—the one a week after Christmas—has always struck me as out of place and anti-climactic. Why begin the year on the first day of the coldest month? I prefer the timing of the Jewish New Year. School is beginning. People are back from vacation. The world kicks into gear.
But Rosh Hashana is more than simply the beginning of the year. Traditionally, Rosh Hashanah commemorates the moment of creation. It is the world’s birthday. It is a time for introspection, for looking back at what we have done wrong during the past year. The purpose of this reflection is not simply to evoke guilt for the sake of guilt—it is to make change possible. It’s a wake-up call. In religious terms, it is a call to repentance.
The word “repent” has vaguely ridiculous, overly pious connotations. Many cartoons have featured a crazy, robed figure (probably a Presbyterian) carrying a sign that says something along the lines of “The end is near! Repent!”
The end may or may not be near, but the point of all the cartoons is that the crazy, robed religious fanatic isn’t convincing anyone to do anything. No one likes to be preached at or judged, even when the message is on the money.
But the kind of repentance that is called for on Rosh Hashana is born of honest self-examination. We are awakened, and this wakefulness leads us to self-awareness, which bring us back to reality. Wakefulness is the antidote to delusion. Freed of our delusions, we are no longer confused. It isn’t hard to do the right thing, because it is the only choice that makes any sense.
A truer and more useful understanding of the word repent is a change of heart. We look at what we have done wrong; we own it; and we change course. By changing course, we change ourselves; we are, in a sense, no longer the people we were. I don’t mean this in some hokey, cartoonish sense. We still have the same identity, history, connections, and responsibilities. I mean that we are forever changed, and thus no longer slaves to our past selves and patterns.
I can think of no greater gift in this world than our ability to learn from the past and change. It is the greatest power we have. Faced with our own weakness, fear, and flaws—and the messes these can generate—we are offered this saving grace. It’s so simple, and maybe that’s why it often eludes us. After all, we are complicated beings. But we can learn, and we can change; and that makes all the difference.