Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year, begins tonight (Friday night), and lasts for 2 days, until sundown on Sunday night. The Jewish year follows the lunar calendar, and the number counts the number of years since Creation. This year we will mark the beginning of 5781.
This year is going to be completely different from any Rosh Hashana that anyone living can remember. It is not like during wartime when we took shelter, although the principle of isolation is somewhat similar. All over the world, shuls, synagogues, minyanim (prayer quorums) held in car parks, parks, back gardens and assorted public spaces, are going to be divided and subdivided into “capsules” as the Israeli government likes to call them. Plastic or plexiglass sheets have been put up to divide prayer spaces into groupings which will attempt to limit exposure to the coronavirus. In Israel, despite the very intense heatwave we’ve been suffering (G-d must really have it in for us this year!), we will have to leave the windows open in shul despite the air-conditioning trying to operate, in order to “dilute” the virus.
Tens of thousands of Israelis are in “bidud” – quarantine – after having been exposed to the virus and cannot take part properly in the Rosh Hashana prayers, so Shofar-blowers will be walking through the various neighborhoods to blow the Shofar for anyone who needs to hear it.
I myself will be attending the services in my brother’s car-park, where I have been going since the last lockdown was lifted straight after Pesach. It’s actually a very nice minyan, and the organizers have now figured out where to hang shading, and where to place chairs in maximum shade. Electric extension cables have been bought for a few fans to help cool us during the heat of the day, but in any event, on the instructions of the Chief Rabbinate, the prayers are going to be cut short. We are going to be starting very early, much of the beautiful poetic passages will be cut out altogether, and singing will be cut to the absolute minimum, again to prevent the spread of the virus.
I know that in years to come we will look back and laugh at what we had to go through, but at the moment it is very hard to see the funny side, especially with the enormously surging numbers of infected people in Israel, and a new lockdown beginning tomorrow afternoon.
I hope and pray that the Almighty gives our leaders the common sense, the logic and the wisdom to make the right decisions for us for a change, because up to now all of those characteristics have been exceedingly lacking.
To give us a bit of an optimistic view of what we hope and pray for next year, here are the Maccabeats with the Israeli classic “Bashana Haba’ah” (Next year), written by the “poet laureate” of Israel, Naomi Shemer. The lyrics were changed slightly to be more relevant to our current situation.. An English translation of the lyrics can be seen under the video (via Suzanne).
In the coming year we’ll sit on our porch
And we’ll count migrating birds
Children on holiday will play tag
Between the house and the fields
Soon you’ll see, soon you’ll see
How good it will be
In the coming year
Soon the day will arrive when we will sing together,
And the distance will just disappear
And the children will smile,
In a world that’s gotten better,
So let’s bring in a healthy new year
Wait and see, wait and see,
what a world there can be
And we know that there’s always tomorrow
In the coming year we’ll spread our palms
Against the white flowing light
A white heron will spread its wings in the light
And the sun will shine in them
Soon you’ll see, soon you’ll see
How good it will be In the coming year
To quote from previous Rosh Hashana posts, Rosh Hashana is not marked by great parties and merry-making for the Jewish New Year is also known as the Day of Judgement, the day when all humans are held accountable before Heaven for their good deeds and bad, and their fate for the coming year is decided. A good part of the two days of the festival is spent in emotional and uplifting prayers in the synagogue where we acclaim G-d as the King of Israel and as King of the whole universe, and where we ask Him to write us in the Book of Life, which remains open until Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement) in 10 days time, giving us time to repent and atone for our sins.
The holiday is marked with the blowing of the Shofar (the ram’s horn), which is meant to literally sound an alarm to wake us up from our bad ways and return us to the righteous path.
Here’s a short clip to give you an idea of what the Shofar sounds like. In the synagogue it will be sounded altogether 100 times in two sets of 30 and 4 sets of 10.
We also eat sweet foods to symbolise our wish for a sweet New Year. A classic staple at the Rosh Hashana table is the apple, which is round, symbolising the cycle of the year, dipped in honey for a sweet new year.
Even our Challahs are baked in a round shape to symbolise the circle of life and the circle of the year. They are often extra-sweet and have raisins inside for added sweetness.On the second night of Rosh Hashana it is traditional to eat a fruit from the new season. The most popular fruit is the pomegranate, because of the beauty of its shape, because it is one of the 7 species of produce native to the Land of Israel, and because it is traditionally believed that it has 613 seeds, the same as the number of mitzvot (commandments) that a Jew is commanded to keep.
In normal times I usually quote the Israeli bureau of statistics with their morale-boosting numbers of olim and new births. This year however the only statistics that are dominating the news media are corona statistics and they are just too depressing to share on a festive post.
Instead I shall concentrate on the amazing good news – which I admit I was very ambivalent about – of the newly signed peace accord, the Abraham Accords, between Israel and the UAE, brokered by US President Donald Trump:
Like it or not, Israel, the Jewish state, is finally integrated into the positive narrative of the region. With actual smiles and handshakes, it has become a recognized Middle Eastern state – part of the landscape of its deserts, mountains, cities and Mediterranean coasts.
Airplanes will be able to fly freely between Tel Aviv, Abu Dhabi and Manama. Citizens of these countries will travel back and forth. Water will flow. Innovation in medicine, high-tech and agriculture will be shared. It’s a Rosh Hashanah miracle. The Messiah seems to be coming, after all.
“Hope and change” – the empty campaign slogan used by former US President Barack Obama – doesn’t do justice to what is happening before our very eyes. That Saudi Arabia is allowing its airspace to be used for flights between Israel and the Arab world is but one example.
Oman, too, has welcomed the normalization of ties between Israel and the UAE and Bahrain, as has Egypt. Kuwait is looking on with caution. Even Qatar, a friend and ally of Iran and Hamas, is trying to hedge its bets – as the current agreements have shuffled all the cards.
Other Arab countries expected to normalize relations with Israel in the near future include Saudi Arabia, Oman, Morocco, as well as Sudan, Chad and even Kosovo, a Muslim country, which wants to open an embassy in Jerusalem.
Maybe we really are living in Mashiachzeit (the Messianic Age)? With so much hardship caused by the coronavirus on the one hand, and the breaking out of peace on the other – how can we fathom G-d’s plan?
All we can do is follow the instructions of the health authorities regarding the virus – wear your mask, wash your hands and keep your distance – and at the same time pray to Hashem for salvation from this plague, and for the continuation and widening of the peace circle in the Middle East.
May Hashem hear our prayers wherever they are held. And this year, as I said above, they are not being recited in grandiose synagogues and formal prayer halls. This year we will be gathering (if we are allowed to gather at all) in the most lowly and prosaic places: car parks, playgrounds, public parks and even street corners. And yet our prayers this year will be more fervent than ever.
If I have offended anyone during this past year I ask forgiveness of them and sincerely apologize.
May Hashem grant us good health, peace, joy and prosperity, and may He inscribe us all in the Book of Life.
תכלה שנה וקללותיה, תחל שנה וברכותיה
Let the current year and its curses be over, let the new year and its blessings begin.
לשנה טובה תכתבו ותחתמו
May you be inscribed in the Book of Life for a happy new year.