By Rabbi James R. Michaels
Special to WJW
If you look at any machzor, the prayer book for the High Holidays, you will find the words “Rosh Hashanah” on the title page and the table of contents. However, if you look at the actual prayers, you will find it mentioned only rarely. It’s strange but true: The holiday Rosh Hashanah is not called by that name in most of the extensive prayers. This cannot be said about any other Jewish holiday.
The reason is that the Torah calls the holiday Yom Hazikaron — the Day of Remembrance — the name used in the machzor. We can only guess why this is the case; however, it is possible to read meaning into the name.
The promise of redemption: Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, the former chief rabbi of Great Britain, interprets the connection between the new year and the concept of remembrance. Through the ages, Jews lived in very difficult
circumstances. Landless, outcast, subject to frequent anti-Semitic attacks, they may have wondered if God had forgotten the covenant given to their biblical ancestors. At the turn of the calendar, they looked ahead hopefully to better times.
Reading the prayer called “Remembrance Verses,” they saw a consistent message that God doesn’t forget. Instead, there is a promise that God will remember to restore the fortunes of Israel. In particular, Jeremiah says, “I will remember the kindness of your youth, when you walked with Me through the wilderness.”
At a time when Jews had little and could anticipate little improvement in their lives, the promise of remembrance gave them hope for a better future — a valued inspiration with which to begin each year.
The promise of forgiveness: A Chasidic master, Shmelke of Nikolsberg, said, “When a person sins and later atones, God will forget the sin but remember the atonement.” At this time of year, we examine our deeds and seek to do better in the future. The Day of Remembrance brings assurance that a sincere effort at contrition will be rewarded with divine forgiveness.
The promise of a better year ahead: This year, every synagogue will observe the High Holidays differently than in the past. The restrictions imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic will deny us the comfort of the familiar rituals of past years: We may gather for prayers in small groups, or virtually via livestream, instead of large numbers in synagogues. We may forego the words and melodies of familiar prayers. The typical large gathering of friends and family around the table for holiday meals will probably not take place. Nonetheless, we can rely on the memories of sights, sounds and aromas of the past to bring us some comfort at this difficult time.
These wistful memories can give assurance that our circumstances will be better in the future. As the popular Hebrew song “Bashanah Haba’ah” tells us, “Wait and see, wait and see, just how good it will be in the year that lies ahead.” Let this be our prayer for this year’s Yom Hazikaron.
Questions for discussion
What memories do you have of past celebrations of Rosh Hashanah? What memories will you take forward from this year’s holiday experience?
Can we create new traditions that will be cherished memories for future generations? What would they look like?
Rabbi James Michaels is the director of clinical pastoral education at the Charles E. Smith Life Communities.