The Roman calendar, which served as the original basis for the Gregorian calendar we use today, began with the month of January, named after the two-faced God Janus. The new year begins with something like the caricatured imagery familiar to us from Dick Clark’s New Year’s Eve celebration – the departing year represented by a bearded old man, the about-to-begin year by a cherubic baby in a diaper.
Our Jewish New Year, which begins Sunday evening, is far less about splitting our attention like Janus and much more focused on what comes next. The process of t’shuvah (repentance) and chesbon hanefesh (introspection; literally: taking an accounting of a person/soul) are meant to improve ourselves for what is to come. We pray for a year of bounty, of success, of joy, of true goodness. Wishing our friends and family a shanah tovah, a “good year” is meant to evoke powerful usages of the word tov in the Torah and elsewhere, including God referring to all of the created universe as “tov me’od” (very good) (Genesis 1:31), God informing Adam that it is “lo tov” (not good) for him to be alone just before God creates Eve (Genesis 2:18), and of the instruction to pursue “hayashar v’hatov” (the good and the straight/just) in our justice system (Deuteronomy 6:18).
As we are reminded in the climactic prayer of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, the liturgical poem (piyyut) Un’taneh Tokef, life does not always follow our wishes. Our liturgy presents metaphors to help make sense of the uncertainty and unfairness of life while at other moments undermining them. We are both uncomfortable with the reality of life as we know it and resigned to embrace the positive and negative consequences of our fate. We pray for the bountiful potential of existence while intellectually knowing that life rarely works out that way. In the generations the liturgy was offered, even more so than our own, survival was tenuous at best; financial stability often a pipe-dream.
This is perhaps nowhere more apparent than in perhaps the two most common metaphors our High Holy Day prayerbooks (machzor) utilize to describe the relationship between human beings and God. In both Avinu Malkeinu (Our Parent, Our Sovereign) and in Hayom Harat Olam (Today the Universe is Born) God is described as Parent and Ruler. While at first glance the former might seem more positive than the latter, the realities of life and experience complicate these preconceptions. Our relationships with our parents, even for the most blessed of children, is one of love, caring, and the eventual tensions inherent in the younger generation creating its own identity and making its way in the world as it sees appropriate. And our relationships to political leaders depends on their personalities and the circumstances of their rule. In both metaphors, the curveballs life throws us are an inherent, if often overlooked, part of our evaluation of both parents and rulers.
As we approach the final lead-up to the High Holy Days, and gaze out at 5777 with dreams and hopes of all it could contain, we should remind ourselves that the liturgy itself embraces the unpredictability of life. As we reflect on last summer when Camp Ramah in Wisconsin and the Ramah Day Camp in Chicago directly impacted over one thousand young Jews as campers and staff, and are already in the midst of planning for our 70th anniversary celebration and our 2017 summers, preparing the next generation for that unpredictability is at the core of what we do.
Through our summer programs and engagement with families and alumni year-round, fun experiences and powerful friends catalyze in our campers and staff a deep-grounding in resilient identities and, with any luck, in figuring out how they can be the best people possible. We infuse them with Jewish ritual, knowledge, and values, while promoting social, group-living, leadership, and intellectual skills that will serve them throughout their lives.
Our dream for them – and for you, and your families, friends, and communities – is that the lives we continue to live will be filled with the blessings the liturgy enumerates. And to paraphrase one of the giants of our Ramah movement and of Jewish education, the late Seymour Fox (z”l), we move forward with an educational vision inspired by the universe’s great potential and informed by our keen awareness of that same universe’s profound fallibility.