I spent a Shabbos with Avraham and his wife not long after I arrived in Jerusalem. They were by far some of the most religious people I had met up until that point, but what stood out most about the visit was that Avraham was a quadriplegic.
Despite his pious appearance, Avraham had not been observant all his life. In fact, he had grown up as a largely unaffiliated American Jew, and had been attending college like so many others his age when a friend’s irate ex-boyfriend showed up on campus and, after an altercation, shot him in the back. When he regained consciousness in the hospital, he was greeted by the shocking news that he would never be able to use his arms or legs again.
It’s hard to imagine how devastating it must have been for Avraham to discover that the future he had envisioned for himself was no longer in the cards. The realization threw him into deep despair. What was he going to do with the rest of his life? Having little else to do with his time, he contemplated his predicament for what seemed like hours when a simple but powerful question hit him with tremendous force: Why am I here? What is the purpose of my existence?
He was struck by the simplicity of the question, but even more by the fact that he didn’t have an answer, so he once again reflected for what seemed like hours, until he was hit by another, even more powerful thought: I could have lived for seventy or eighty years, and if I hadn’t been shot, I may never even have asked myself this question!
Avraham was blown away by the realization that he could have gone through his entire life without ever asking himself the simplest and most important question that a human being could possibly ask. It was so mind-boggling to him that he once again fell into hours of deep thought until he was hit by one final, life-altering realization: Thank God I was shot, because I’d rather be a quadriplegic who knows what he’s living for, than a fully-functional human being who’s lived for seventy to eighty years without even asking himself the question!
Most Jews are aware that Rosh Hashanah marks the beginning of the new year, but it’s actually much more than that. In Jewish tradition, Rosh Hashanah marks the day when mankind and his entire world is recreated anew. That’s right; according to Jewish tradition, every year on Rosh Hashanah the universe is rebuilt from scratch, which raises an important question: Couldn’t the all-powerful Creator make a more durable world? Couldn’t He set us up so that our subscription renews automatically?
The answer is that Rosh Hashanah is about more than the recreation of the world. It’s about making us into active participants in that recreation. This is why Rosh Hashanah is also the day of judgement. According to Jewish tradition, the judgment of Rosh Hashanah is far more than an inventory of our past year’s good and bad deeds; it’s an examination of who we are at our essence. By reminding us of the possibility (i.e. - inevitability) that our lives may come to an end, Rosh Hashanah's judgement forces us to examine ourselves and what we desire most of all? It begs the question: Do we really want another year of life, and if so, why? What kind of life do we want to live?
Rosh Hashanah is far more than mankind’s birthday; it’s mankind’s greatest-ever birthday gift. Whether we succeed or fail in life will be determined not by the negative events or circumstances we may encounter, nor by our mistakes and character flaws, but first and foremost by whether we’re willing to seek clarity as to why we’re here. Our Creator, who gave us our free-will, knows that we’ll do pretty much anything to avoid even asking the question, which is why He gave us the gift of Rosh Hashanah. Rosh Hashanah not only confronts us with the question; it provides us with an answer as well. You may struggle with that answer, but rest assured, your willingness to step onto that path of true self-discovery will, in and of itself, be the most important choice you’ll ever make.
Wishing you a sweet new year filled with health, peace and blessings,
Note: Speaking of seeking, if you’re one of those who seek to further explore questions like these, and wish to make Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur more of a consciousness-raising experience, please consider joining us for all or some of our High Holiday Learners’ Services. To learn everything you need to know, click here: Rosh Hashanah.