Monday, September 26, 2011

Serve the L-rd with Fear and Rejoice with Trembling

To me, Rosh Hashanah is a day of contradictions. It’s the day we coronate G-d as King, and in celebration we dress up and eat delicious meals with our families. On the other, by crowning G-d as our king, we are acknowledging that we are subjects of the King Who has absolute control over our lives; that today is the Day of Remembrance and Judgment, when G-d determines all that will occur to us and the world in the upcoming year – and that’s scary!

Whenever I think back to the previous Rosh Hashanah, I’m struck by how much happened that I never anticipated. My mind jumps to the logical corollary, the mystery of what unknowns lay before me.

Our prayers describe how we pass before G-d single-file, as sheep before the shepherd. Each of us is examined individually and our fate is written in the Shepherd’s book. G-d looks at our talents and potential, examines our current circumstances and the tests we’ve endured. What’s the state of the union of our body and soul? In fact, all this anxiety over our fate has a practical ramification in that on Rosh Hashanah we don’t sing Hallel, the joyous prayer that is part of the regular holiday service.

And yet, amidst all this fear and trembling, there’s joy. When Ezra the Scribe led the Jews of Judea to repent, on Rosh Hashanah they prostrated themselves and wept – two things that we still do on Rosh Hashanah. But then he told them, “Go, eat delicacies and drink sweet drinks…and do not be sad, for the joy of the L-rd is your strength.”

It seems to me that there are two Rosh Hashanahs that coexist. The mood in the synagogue leans toward awe, but once we return home, joy steps to the fore. We greet each other cheerfully with wishes for a good and sweet year, and celebrate with a holiday meal that is festive in mood and menu.

In a sense, this Rosh Hashanah dichotomy captures what it is to be a Jew: to rejoice with trembling. Sometimes one wing rises higher for a moment, but both are needed for us to soar up to G-d.

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