Reflections – Rosh Hashanah 5775
Rosh Hashanah reminds us that this could be your last first day, that the world is defined by change and flux.
By Rabbi Roni Tabick
I recently hit a major milestone in my life. As I entered my final year of rabbinical school in New York, I had what is probably my last first day of classes.
After years of education, at primary and secondary school, after several degrees, time at the Conservative Yeshiva, and five years of rabbinical studies in New York, this is probably the last time I will sign up for classes, have to find my rooms, meet new teachers and all the rigmarole that goes into a new year of education. This time next year I will, please God, be a fully qualified rabbi, settling into my new role in the Masorti movement.
My last first day of school marks the beginning of the end of an enormous phase of my life.
We have such experiences all the time, but are often not able to recognise the moment for what it is as we are living it, and only in retrospect can we see when something was a last for us. We may know that we are making our last trip to our favourite holiday destination, as we make the decision to go elsewhere, or we may, years later, realise that we have never been back. We may know that we’re buying for the last time in a shop before it closes down, or be hit with the realisation weeks later when we walk past the shuttered windows.
Rosh Hashanah reminds us that this could be your last first day, that the world is defined by change and flux. You don’t know what will be left behind this year, what will be different when next Rosh Hashana comes around, but the one constant in life is change, and something will be different.
Unetanneh Tokef, the special prayer for the High Holy Days that comes in the Musaf Amidah, lays this out in stark detail, as it reminds us that this coming year we could face our deaths:
“On Rosh Hashanah it is written and on Yom Kippur it is sealed – how many will pass from the earth and how many will be born; who will live and who will die…”
The harsh prayer lays out in visceral terms all the ways of death “by water… fire… sword… beast… famine… thirst…” The list is unrelenting, and designed to make us realise that this could be our last first day of the year.
What is the point of this message? The words of Unetanneh Tokef, that seem so painful and severe, can be depressing or alienating – why would I want to feel this way?
The answer lies in Rosh Hashanah’s other message, that not only is this your last first day of the year for something, it is also symbolically the first first day of the year, the anniversary of the creation of humanity. “Today is the birthday of the world!” we proclaim.
The beginning of the end is nonetheless a new beginning, as fresh a world as it was when Adam first walked in the garden, and today, and everyday, you can begin anew and make the world a better place for you having lived in it.
As I enter my last year of formal education, it’s been hard for me to invest my learning with the same enthusiasm and diligence. After four full years I can’t wait to start working in the rabbinate.
But the message of Rosh Hashanah is to pay attention, realise that something wonderful is coming to an end, and then to appreciate the opportunities that I still have.
For each of us this is our last year of something – may we fully appreciate all we have.