Five Ways to Prepare for Rosh Hashanah

by Nigel Savage

Thursday, August 23, 2018 | 12 Elul 5778

Dear All,

  1. Be brave and make plans to see people. Host people or reach out and ask someone if you can come over to them. We talk about the black fire and the white fire of the Torah (ie the letters, and the white space around them), but the white fire of the holidays is not what we do, but what we don’t do. Not being on email. Not reading the news. Not looking at a screen. The white fire is being with ourselves (sometimes a very hard thing to do) and being with others. Walking. Sleeping. Eating. So look at your calendar and host a meal, or host another meal, or make plans with family or friends. Don’t leave it to the last minute.
  2. Read or reread Alan Lew’s This Is Real And You Are Completely Unprepared. It’s a beautiful beautiful book, and becoming better known with each passing year since his untimely death. And don’t just read it – plan on taking it to shul. It’s always good to take a book with you to services. That’s a fine thing to do.
  3. We’re enjoying the bounty of the world at the expense of future generations, and Rosh Hashanah – the birthday of the world – is a moment to take stock of this. Trace the consequences of your behaviors, and figure out which ones you could change this year, in honor of Rosh Hashanah and in order to feel, in some small way, better about yourself. Just one of many examples: Americans use an average of 150 plastic bottles a year, per person. That’s 50 billion plastic bottles in total. Used for 20 minutes, if that, and then taking centuries to decompose. If there are five thousand people reading this email, and their/your/our consumption is just average, and we all decided this year to cut our use of disposable plastic bottles by 90% (ie once in a blue moon, rather than regularly), then we would save more than 600,000 plastic bottles a year. Imagine the sight of 600,000 plastic bottles. Imagine your own part in it. And it might not be disposable plastic bottles. You might choose something else. But talk about it with your partner or your kids or someone, and make a decision to live more lightly. Hazon is the leading Jewish partner in Living the Change, a global interfaith effort to encourage personal commitments around transportation, home energy use, and dietary choices. Join thousands of people around the world and make your commitment to Living the Change. And let 5779 be the year that your synagogue or school or Hillel joins the Hazon Seal of Sustainability, if you want to commit to change, and you want help and support in doing so.
  4. Be kind to your rabbi. By this I mean, first, be kind to your actual rabbi. And secondly, be kind to other rabbis, and other leaders, and other people trying to do good in the world (including, in some instances, elected officials.) Communities (and countries) function poorly with poor leadership, and the task of leadership is made immeasurably harder if people feel attacked and criticized. And – no – this is not a blank check, it doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t call out inappropriate behavior when we see it (including, for instance, bigoted narcissistic leadership in the highest places). But, leaving aside the issue of people who should not be leading in the first place, leadership in the Jewish world is becoming steadily harder, as each year goes by. Services are too long, or the cantor is off tune, or we don’t like the tune, or we didn’t like the sermon, we thought the sermon was crazy, and why did the rabbi not remember my name, and the kids’ services were awful, and who took my seat? And the food at kiddush was awful, and there wasn’t enough of it. And so on. Our societal attention deficit disorder is now paralleled by a humility-deficit-disorder, in which the needs of the sovereign self are corroding many of the institutions of Jewish life. And, yes, some of those institutions may need to crumble, and some are being rebuilt in new ways. But none will persist if we do not give rabbis the benefit of the doubt and the tradition itself the benefit of the doubt. It’s ok to be bored – it’s not the worst thing in the world. It’s ok to hear something you don’t totally agree with in every single respect. Sit there and listen, reflect, think, breathe… And just see what you can make of it. Just imagine that your rabbi is a shining kind person, striving to give and to help – and be a tad more open to that. Better still – encourage your rabbi to go for it, to be brave, to share what they’re feeling and think needs to be said, and encourage everyone around you to listen with respect, also. You will feel better about yourself, and you’ll start to be part of the solution rather than part of the problem. (And if you’re in a position to help send a rabbi to our annual Hazon Rabbis’ Retreat, please consider helping to spread this gift.)
  5. Lastly: Register to vote. Don’t forget to vote. Put it in your calendar. That’s part of teshuva also.

This year, as most previous years, I’m riding into teshuva – spending Labor Day Weekend at Hazon’s New York Ride & Retreat, at Isabella Freedman. If you don’t have Labor Day weekend plans then come and fundraise, with and for us, and ride for a better world and a better Jewish community – and get in shape and laugh and feel the joy of just riding along country lanes. There are just a handful of slots left – if you’d like to come, sign up quickly. If we’re sold out, then pencil it in for 2019.
And if you can’t join us at the Ride – have your pre-Rosh Hashanah random act of kindness be to sponsor one of our riders. You could sponsor Manny Lindenbaum, for instance, who was born in Germany before the war, who came to this country as an orphan, and who is doing the ride in the second half of his eighties with one of his kids and one of his grandkids. He and Annabelle are an inspiration to all our riders and to all who know them. Or another of our riders, also riding with a kid and a grandkid – Ruth Messinger, a decade younger than Manny and equally indomitable. Or just pick one of our riders who you don’t even know, and sponsor them as a way to encourage them – and to feel that you too, in some ways, are this year riding into teshuva.
Finally, consider spending the last Shabbat of 5778 (September 7-9) at Isabella Freedman for Shabbat Elul where we will be preparing for the new year with spirited, diverse prayer and deep learning.
Shabbat shalom, shana tova – wishing you a happy and healthy and more sustainable new year.