The new year as a life of example

Photo by Igal Ness on Unsplash
Photo by Igal Ness on Unsplash

Editor’s Note: This essay by Rabbi Address was originally published in the Jewish Community Voice of Southern New Jersey, September 6, 2023.

Shanah Tovah. Hard to believe that another year has passed and 5784 is dawning. Time, especially as we get older, seems to fly by with hypersonic speed. This new year does seem a little different, doesn’t it? The spectre of COVID  has diminished and gradually we are more open to in-person experiences. Yet, while COVID may be less of a threat, we meet the new year with continuing challenges, both here and abroad; from the disruptions in Israel to those here politically. The Jewish world is in great transition, as are so many of us. How shall we greet this new year, this new clean slate of time? Ask yourself as you sit in synagogue or on Zoom, what shall I bring to this new year?

In Hebrew, we will see the number 84 written as the letters peh and daled. The peh has the numerical value of 80 and the daled, four.

If we look at the peh, we remember that it is the first letter of the Hebrew word for face, panim. The daled is the first letter for the Hebrew word for example, dugma. What can these two words teach us about the coming year? Perhaps it is a message that reminds us of the need to face our true self and in doing so, live a life that sets an example. In this world of anxiety and entitlement, maybe this new year is asking us to remember that it is not about “me,” but it is about “us,” and that for society to function well, it must be a unity of diversity.

Let me suggest that what this new year may be asking of us is to act like adults, to seek a maturing of our society. In a recent New York Times op-ed, (“Hey, America, Grow Up!” August 10, 2023) David Brooks examined the culture of immaturity that infects so much of our world. In the piece, he wrote that “Maturity is understanding that you’re not the center of the universe. The world isn’t a giant story about me.” Facing up to this reality may mean accepting certain changes, losses, and challenges in each of us. We are not the same person as we were a year ago. Trying to find our place in the world is a challenge that takes levelheaded reasoning, and, at times, a letting go of previously-held truths. The liturgy of the Holidays will remind us, if we choose to hear it, that we are part of something greater than our self. Joining hands with others can be how meaningful progress and growth can be achieved. This is one of the life lessons that so many learn as we age, the truth that we do need other people and that community and relationships provide definition and meaning to life.

In recognizing this, we can live a life of example. Again, tradition can give us a hint as to how to do this. In the morning service, we read a magnificent prayer, eleh d’varim: These are the things that we must do. The prayer lists the responsibilities of each of us. It does not ask us to choose what we wish. It is clear, to live a life of example, these are the things that each of must do. The list focuses on or involvement with the community and society and concludes with the famous line that “the study of Torah leads to them all.” It is as if the tradition is reminding us that in facing the new year, we are going to be called to act responsibly, in an adult and mature manner, and to live our life so that we bring honor to ourselves by the actions we are called upon to do. Or, to simply paraphrase a line from Pirke Avot: “In a place where no one acts as a human being, strive to act like a human being.”

May the new year bring you and those you care for and who care for you, a year of joy, health, and peace.

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