As the sun sets Sunday, Jewish people all over the world will celebrate Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year of 5773.
Rosh Hashanahh is the beginning of a 10-day period of high holy days that ends on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.
We asked five local Jewish teenagers to explain what the High Holidays mean to them.
Baron Hirsch Synagogue
When I begin to contemplate the messages the High Holidays bring us as Jews, ideas immediately rush my mind. I reflect on the previous year, recognizing how to improve my actions and resume on my journey to becoming closer to G-d.
The High Holidays are a time to extinguish the hum of the computer vibrating as social networking sites flood the screens. Facebook, Twitter and other social media sites do not compensate for the way I feel when entering the synagogue and listening to the melodies sung so beautifully throughout the prayer service.
The High Holidays instill a sense of fear in all of us. These are the days of judgment. These are the days that G-d recalls all of our actions for the previous year and determines our fate for the future.
I find this message very powerful, because even though it is the time for G-d to examine our souls, it is a perfect opportunity for us to reflect on ourselves. We learn from our mistakes, for they guide us on our spiritual path.
During the High Holidays, the synagogue resembles unity, as all its members all rise collectively for the unique tunes that are reserved for these special days.
As the choir begins a round of lovely harmonies, all ears turn attentively to the words that are conveyed through the inspirational words. This is especially heartwarming to me because it resembles the common goal we all share throughout these days, becoming closer to G-d.
The holidays also remind us of who we are and who we serve — G-d. On these days, we abandon all outside distractions and focus on our Creator. We recognize that we must dedicate our lives to the service of G-d and that we cannot only take: We must give as well.
The High Holidays are time of reflection, atonement and realizations. We must grasp these messages and channel them positively. I wish everyone a sweet and happy new year, and may we all be inscribed in the Book of Life.
Noga Finkelstein is a ninth-grader at Goldie Margolin High School for Girls.
The Jewish community’s branches sprawl across cities and across state lines, arching over land and sea. Whether in the crowded streets of Buenos Aires, at the Western Wall of Jerusalem, or right here in Memphis, there is someone nearby who shares a piece of your history and your culture.
We are intrinsically connected with an entire people who are dispersed all over the world. However, during most of the year, we each go about our business, minding only our immediate surroundings. We focus our attention on the community we can see from our doorsteps and ignore the community that grows on the outer branches of the tree of Judaism.
Suddenly, around September each year, this all changes. People who normally would not attend services recognize the holiness of the time and make the trip to their local synagogue. Families push aside the stress of their everyday lives and focus on repentance and the prospect of a new year, a better year.
We all come together, praying and worshipping as a community, during a very special and holy time: the high holidays. But this community is not just the community we see on a daily basis; it is the community that spans the entire planet.
When I go to services, I am not simply in the company of my family and the congregation of Temple Israel, I am in the company of the global Jewish community. What may separate us at any other time of the year — race, status, occupation, background — fades away.
This is what I love most about the high holidays: in prayer, we are all equal, no matter how far apart we are. This theme goes beyond the boundaries of religion; it connects us as human beings.
Emma Heaslet is a senior at White Station High.
Anshei Sphard Beth El Emeth Congregration
Two central aspects of repentance in Judaism are renewal and purification.
The sinner is transformed into a new person. Furthermore, as Rabbi Joseph B. Soleveitchik explains, one who repents fully is not only forgiven, which simply means he won’t be punished, but also is purified and cleansed of sin.
These two ideas are truly emblematic of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, and are the two messages of the High Holidays which I cherish most.
Rosh Hashana is all about renewal. Not only do we pray to G-d that he will grant us a wonderful new year, but we resolve within ourselves to improve and do better during the upcoming year. Every year naturally brings with it some disappointments, and on Rosh Hashana, the sense that I can be something new and better next year is one that I find to be exceedingly refreshing and joyful.
Renewal is an oft-mentioned theme in the Rosh Hashana liturgy, and the blowing of the shofar serves as an alarm clock of sorts, waking us up to the reality of a new year and the possibility of a totally new and different existence. Rosh Hashana is a forward-looking start to the new year.
Yom Kippur focuses on purification, looking back at the previous year and recognizing that our numerous sins are holding us back from the renewal we have resolved to carry out on Rosh Hashana. Before we can renew ourselves, we must first be cleansed of the filth of our past sins.
If so, why does Rosh Hashana precede Yom Kippur? Looking back at our past failings can be quite disheartening, and can even cause us to give up hope on renewal. Therefore, we first focus on looking forward and resolve to improve, and then we turn back to deal with the past.
Symbolic of this cleansing is the custom of purifying ourselves in the mikveh, the ritual bath, before Yom Kippur. Furthermore, the prayers of Yom Kippur (which are quite numerous, by the way) constantly refer to this notion of purification, which is so meaningful to me.
Right after Yom Kippur is over, before I eat or do anything else, I feel a sense of liberation and exhilaration. Now that the burden of the past has been shaken off, I can look forward to a better future and a better me.
The skeptic will respond that I am actually just exhilarated that I can now dig into bagels and cream cheese after a 25-hour fast. This is probably true, but the joy of my stomach can certainly coexist with the joy of my soul.
In any case, these two themes of renewal and purification help me usher in the new year with a real sense of hopefulness that this year can truly be better than the last.
Asher Finkelstein is a 10th-grader at Yeshiva University High School for Boys in New York City.
A few years ago, I was very confused as I was sitting with my family during the High Holidays. It was during a morning service of Yom Kippur, also known as the Day of Atonement.
I could not understand why Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year and beginning of God’s judgment period, takes place before Yom Kippur, the holiday during which we fast, confess our sins, and ask for forgiveness.
I quickly concluded that it would make more sense if we completed the latter first, and then started anew with the coming year. Since then, however, I have adopted my own idea that explains the message that this particular order is trying to convey.
For me, the High Holidays, as a whole, represent the beginning of the New Year with Rosh Hashana as the starting point. Instead of trying to make our new resolutions and set new goals all at once, we can focus on the idea of improvement itself.
In today’s world, we struggle with the simple task of admitting that we can change and morally enhance ourselves. On Rosh Hashana, if we merely acknowledge that, yes, we can and will become better individuals, we are already fulfilling this holiday.
Then, on Yom Kippur, which always follows 10 days later, we repent and cleanse ourselves of our past transgressions. And through completing these deeds, we can look to the future year with a clear-cut idea of how to make it a better one for ourselves as well as the people around us.
Perhaps this concept is most apparent in Kol Nidre, the opening prayer of the Yom Kippur service.
While the meaning of the prayer refers to God’s annulment of our vows made to Him for the coming year, it is the music behind the prayer that strikes me more than the words. Most notably heard from Max Bruch’s dramatic and emotional version, the prayer begins with a somber mood that gradually obtains a lighter tone.
This change resonates with the High Holidays’ theme itself: While the dark nature represents the examining of our sinful actions, the more hopeful tune symbolizes our optimistic gaze toward a brighter future.
And as this song plays, we stand together as a community, ready to complete this yearly process with the support of each other.
Brian Ringel is a senior at Memphis University School.
Chabad Lubovitch of Tennessee
Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur are referred to as the High Holy Days in Judaism. Rosh Hashana literally means the Head of the Year and also is known as the Jewish New Year. Yom Kippur is the holiest day of the year, and on that day we are closest to G-d.
Within these two holidays, we are taught a great deal of spirituality. There are a great many spiritual messages that I enjoy learning about and participating in. My personal favorite spiritual messages are those of “new beginnings” and “forgiveness.”
There are many symbols of “new beginnings” in the way we celebrate Rosh Hashana. These remind us that past mistakes can be put behind us if we truly want a fresh start.
For example, we eat round challah bread to represent the theory of the circle of life and that at the end of each year, G-d allows us to begin again. Another symbol of “new beginnings” in this holiday is represented by the eating of apples dipped in sweet honey. This represents the wish that the year ahead be filled with sweetness and good fortune.
The conclusion of the High Holy Days is called Yom Kippur. It is known as the Day of Atonement, and on this day you ask for forgiveness from G-d and the hope that he will purify you from all the sins you have committed during the past year and give you a fresh start.
G-d decides whether or not you merit having your name inscribed into the Book of Life and Happiness and decides “who shall live and who shall die” (Book of Sadness). My favorite spiritual message of this day is that of forgiveness.
This holiday teaches us that if you truly ask for forgiveness, G-d will grant you many more years of happiness. However, you have to earn the right to be forgiven by being sincere and recognizing your mistakes. Fortunately, during this holiday G-d gives you many chances to earn your right to be written into the Book of Life and Happiness.
The High Holy Days teach us that it is important to take time out to reflect on our behavior and consider areas where improvements can be made. It is common to make resolutions about how we will be different if given the chance next year.
I know for myself there are many things I’d like to do differently next year and thank G-d he cares enough about me to let me try.
Austin Bierman is a 9th-grader at Lausanne Collegiate School.