As Autumn approaches, Jews will soon be deeply ensconced in the period known simply as “the holidays.” This period of “the holidays” begins with the Hebrew month of Elul, which accompanies the sudden blast of the shofar (the ram’s horn), calling us out of our summer slumber to awaken and prepare our hearts. It’s worth noting that the holidays commanded by God in the Hebrew Bible all happen in the Spring and Fall, when – here in the Land of Israel – the weather is the most dynamic, stimulating the most dramatic changes in the earth.
One month after Elul, the month of Tishrei opens with Rosh Hashana. We’re used to thinking of this as the Jewish New Year, without the champagne and fireworks. The term “New Year” is not incorrect, insofar as it marks the civil Jewish new year. But if that’s all we think of when it comes to Rosh Hashana, then we’ve missed the essence. The Bible calls this Yom Truah – the day of “sounding” the shofar. It is also “Yom haZikaron” – the day of Remembering, when the Holy One specifically recalls each and every one of his creations for judgment.
From Rosh Hashana we enter into a special period of 10 days focused on an examination of conscience and repentance that leads up to Yom Kippur. According to Leviticus 16, Yom Kippur is the one day of the year when the High Priest enters the Holy of Holies to make atonement for the sins of the people. Today, the day-long fast on Yom Kippur allows us to focus our attention on prayer, communal confession, and sincere repentance. Five long prayer services (as opposed to the usual three) lead to a pronouncement of God’s unity, an extra-long shofar blast, and a special phrase that we use ritually on only two holy days: at the end of the Passover Seder and at the end of the last prayer service on Yom Kippur we remind ourselves “Next year in Jerusalem, the Rebuilt.”
Notice that the phrase is not only “next year in Jerusalem,” but next year in a very special kind of Jerusalem. It’s not (just) the sometimes beautiful, sometimes ugly, Jerusalem of great restaurants, holy sites, traffic snarls, Ben Yehuda street and terror attacks. “Next year in Jerusalem, the Rebuilt” reminds us of our anticipation of the miraculous–our expectation of the (ostensibly) impossible becoming possible. The world can and will be changed. Some of that is human work and some of that is God’s work. But, calls the shofar, we’d best get busy doing our part.