It seems more than fitting that my first d’var torah to be published on this website will be published in my first week of studies and is about Rosh Hashanah. In considering what I could possibly write for this series of momentous occasions, I decided to lean into the fear and joy that I have been marinating in whilst contemplating the beginning of my studies.
When I began writing, I came across an article on torah.org by Rabbi Yehuda Prero entitled “A Time for Fear, A Time for Joy” in which R’ Prero recounts a tale of a man whose fear of sailing is only heightened when, on boarding a ship, he is handed a floatation device. This fear is transformed to joy only once the worst-case scenario occurs, and the ship begins to sink. This story is used in conjunction with the teaching from Sukkah 46a, that the one who fashions a shofar is not required to recite the shehechianu blessing, but one who hears the shofar being blown on Rosh Hashanah is. The reasoning provided here is that when the shofar is being created it acts as an ongoing reminder of the fact that on Rosh Hashanah we must face judgement for our actions. By the time that this day of judgement arrives we must feel the joy of the waiting being over. Whatever we could do to make things right has to have been completed, and we will proceed with blank slates.
I have long felt this period of prolonged fear and anxiety during the month of Elul, a building tension that only begins to ease on Rosh Hashanah and which is fully released in the closing moments of the Neilah service on Yom Kippur with that concluding, glorious tekiah g’dolah blast of the shofar. The resonance of that final blast wipes any remnants of anxiety from my chest and in that moment, I have always felt the whole blank page of the year stretching ahead of me, and the weight of the pen in my hand. Never have I been more aware of this tension building and flexing as I have this year, as I have felt the blessing and the stress of embarking on this new journey.
I am certain that this building tension and release is familiar to most people who have been educated in a school system that runs from autumn through to summer. The period of enforced calm during August that precedes the September storm is surely something that resonates with most of us who can remember the ‘back to school’ jitters that crept in as September drew ever closer and that only eased once those first few days of classes had begun. It is always less scary to face the world when the future has a road map, and we are aware of the expectations placed upon us.
However, personal administrative tasks are, of course, very important, but I am not convinced that they should be of greater concern than the moral and spiritual reflection and preparation that this time should also elicit. It is important to take stock of our inner selves and to ensure we are walking our paths with integrity and in the best way that we can. In the ‘Days of Awe’ machzor, the Shabbat Shuvah service opens with the following prayer:
“The old year has died, and the new year has scarcely begun. In this pause before the account is made of the past, and my life is judged for what it is, I ask for honesty, vision and courage. Honesty to see myself as I am, vision to see myself as I should be, and the courage to change.
Many obstacles block my return: my lack of trust, my anxieties and fears, and old habits of selfishness and greed. They separate me from You. They divide me from my true nature, and deny me the contentment and the peace You offer.”
The nervous sailor depicted in R’ Prero’s story feels joy at having been gifted a floatation device only when the ship he is on begins to sink and he is alone in having the means to save himself. Whilst one cannot save others if they themselves are in danger (you must always put on your own oxygen mask before helping someone else with theirs), it does not sit comfortably with me that we could feel joy at our own safety whilst watching those around us struggle. This Rosh Hashanah, therefore, I am leaning into the idea of tzedakah with strength. I am setting my intention to offer support to those who are struggling and to share my floatation device for as long as I am able. May we all work this year to release the tension of what we might have been afraid of, to offer ourselves the grace to start the work of removing the obstacles in front of us, and to share the floatation devices we are lucky enough to be gifted with those less fortunate than ourselves.
Emily Carp LBC student rabbi
The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.