Repentance and rebuilding


Forgiveness, spiritual elevation and acts of righteousness are as much a part of Rosh Hashana as the sounding of a ram's horn, eating matzo ball soup and dipping an apple in honey.

As Jews across Howard County prepare for the Jewish New Year, several Columbia rabbis will try to inspire congregants into doing better this year. The two-day holiday begins at sundown today and ends Sunday after nightfall.

"There's always forgiveness in Judaism," said Rabbi Susan Grossman of Beth Shalom Synagogue. "But forgiveness is predicated not just on asking for forgiveness, but in changing our ways. And for the things we can't fix, we make reparations in other ways -- giving charity or doing good deeds. Charity in Hebrew means righteousness [and] justice because we are creating justice in the world."

Rosh Hashana is also called the "Day of Judgment," when God weighs each person's merits and sins over the past year, before inscribing his or her fate for the coming year.

The holiday marks the beginning of the 10 days of teshuva, which means repentance in Hebrew, and culminates on Yom Kippur, a day of fasting and prayer that begins this year at sundown Sept. 15. During that 10-day period, Jews can overturn negative decrees through prayer, repentance and charity.

Rabbi Hillel Baron, of the Lubavitch Center for Jewish Education, said that teshuva literally means return. "We are returning to God spiritually and through deed," he said. "Even a [righteous person] has to do teshuva. We need to perfect ourselves, and Rosh Hashana provides that lifeline."

Jews pray for all the blessings of a good year -- peace, health, family, livelihood, success. "While these gifts appear self-indulgent, the prayers become a spiritual quest if we devote what God has blessed us with to better serve him," Baron said.

While many synagogues charge for seats on the High Holidays, the Lubavitch Center does not. "Money should not be a prerequisite for praying," Baron said. "Why should anyone be left out?"

Sermons will intertwine the tragedy of Sept. 11 with the holiday's affirmations of life. "For us as Jews, the essence of our existence and core of our faith is in celebrating life and the ability for personal transformation, rejecting sin and believing life is worthy," said Rabbi Mark Panoff of Temple Isaiah. "We must embrace a countervailing force to the nihilism of militant Islam and stand for life as an opportunity for righteous behavior."

Panoff will recite with his congregation the Reform movement's suggested liturgy for Sept. 11, including a prayer for recovery and a responsive reading of thanks. The next day, he will address the rise of "new" anti-Semitism in Europe and how Jews should be "aroused" to support Israel and world Jewry.

Grossman will connect Sept. 11 to the symbolic concept of repairing broken vessels. "We could become broken because of what was done to us," she said. "But how do we put ourselves back together -- through anger and hatred? And if we break our own vessels, we must rebuild ourselves by looking deeply inside at what we need to change in ourselves and in our lives."

To rouse worshipers to repentance, the ram's horn, or shofar, is sounded in synagogue on the holiday and after morning prayers during the month preceding Rosh Hashana. (The shofar is not blown on the Sabbath in Orthodox and Conservative synagogues.)

On Rosh Hashana afternoon, congregants observe the tashlich service -- praying by a body of water that their sins are carried off by the fish swimming underneath.

"Tashlich symbolizes that just as fish are covered by water, we pray to God to cover our imperfections," Baron said.

At the holiday meal, it is traditional to dip slices of round challah bread and apples into honey, symbolizing wishes for a sweet new year.

"Rosh Hashana is a very positive family holiday, filled with warmth, symbolism and inspiration for personal growth," Baron said.

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