From the desk of Rabbi Howald

A Message from
Rabbi Michael D. Howald
Last Shabbat, we opened our prayer books for the month of Elul and S’lichot for the first time since last year and read a prayer that almost brought the service to a halt. Called “A Time for Turning,” the prayer began with these words: “This is the time for turning. The leaves are beginning to turn from green to red and orange. The birds are beginning to turn and are heading once more toward the South.” [1] It’s one thing to read this prayer on a Friday night in mid-September, its another to read it on a humid evening in August after yet another rainstorm has turned the foliage thick and a deep shade of green. The service continued, rescued from the disconnect between prayer and reality, by the sweet music of our guest cantor and the ruach (spirit) of the worshippers gathered to celebrate the beginning of Shabbat. Yet a question still lingered: Do we need cues from the outside world to start our turn toward the self-reflection of the High Holy Days?
These questions arise whenever Rosh Hashana comes as early as it does this year. We usually think of fall and the High Holy Days together, paired by both calendar and nature as times of transition from one season to another. When the leaves begin to fall, its natural to think of the passing of the languid days of summer and the coming of the shorter and eventful days of fall. When the nights start becoming cool and crisp again, our thoughts often turn to opportunities missed and taken, to promises made and broken and to friends made and lost. When we lack these sensory cues from the outside world, when the world still seems in fixed in the heat and lushness of summer, our own inward turning may seem out-of-synch with the constancy we see around us.
Yet, the season of self-reflection in Jewish tradition is not inherently tied to changes in the world of nature. Rosh Hashana is barely mentioned in the Torah and never as the “Beginning of the Year.” [2] In the time of Nehemiah, written sometime in the 6 th century B.C.E., this sacred day also becomes the occasion for the reading of the Law before the entire assembly of Israel. In the Hebrew Bible, accordingly, the first day of the seventh month is not associated with a change in season. Sukkot, which closely follows Yom Kippur, often arrives during the season of harvesting in the Levant, but Rosh Hashana arose in a climate with gentler transitions between one season and the next than we experience in New York. We live in a world thick with deciduous trees and ripe with the prospect of snow before fall ends. Our ancestors grew up in a diverse but largely pastoral domain amid sparse trees and shrubs where rain was scarce, and snow only fell on the highest peaks. Yet, they found a way to turn inwardly even as the world around them remained largely the same as it had been the week or month before.
We associate the leaves falling and the birds turning south with Rosh Hashana because they often coincide. The coincidence seems wholly appropriate with the larger purposes of the Days of Awe to initiate a solemn reflection on the year that past and the year yet to come. Yet, in the end, the correspondence between Rosh Hashana and the first signs of fall remains a coincidence in the largest sense of the word—a happenstance on which we cannot rely year in and year out. When we take up the Machzor (our High Holy Day prayer book) for the first time, the air conditioning or the boilers may be running, we never know which. Even so, the time for turning is upon us.
Wishing you a sweet and meaningful New Year from my family to yours! L’shana Tovah tikateivu v’teichateimu! May you be inscribed, and sealed, for a good year!
Rabbi Michael Howald