It seems pretty inane, but we all seem to go through the very same performance annually: “It’s Rosh Hashanah already! Where has this year gone?” You’d think that by now we’d have gotten accustomed to the arrival of the holiday.
But why does the realization that the holiday is arriving send us into a tailspin, inspiring a buzz of frenetic activity? Why is there such stress and pressure in our minds and hearts? Is it just the homemakers anticipating their big dinners, lunches and the rush for new recipes? Is it the selection process for the best seats at our preferred shul? Or is it, perhaps, the knowledge that some very earnest, solemn, holy days are almost upon us?
For rabbis, this is certainly the high-pressure season of the year. Some of my colleagues even call it the “silly season.” But it’s not just the demand to produce outstanding “keynote address” sermons. There is an intense awareness that Judgment Day is coming.
From the beginning of Elul, the month of preparation for Rosh Hashanah, an anxious strain builds up in the back of our minds. With each passing day, we become more aware that, in just a short while, the heavenly court will be scrutinizing our past performance, not only professional but personal and spiritual. The trick, of course, is to get this to the front of our minds and actually do something about it.
I believe that the deeper reason behind the frenetic rush of adrenaline in the Jewish bloodstream at this time of year has more to do with trying to work out who we are and where we are in life than what we are serving for dinner or what our seat number is in shul. For some, it is a very conscious awareness; for others, it may be subconscious; but I believe it’s there.
So where can we find ourselves? How many young people have gone off to uncharted frontiers to find themselves? They may search all over the world, but at the end of the day, we are not to be found in the mountains of Tibet or the ashrams of India. And we certainly won’t find ourselves by escaping to Las Vegas or Cyprus.
In the Torah reading shortly before Rosh Hashanah (Deuteronomy 22), we read about the mitzvah of hashovas aveidah—returning lost articles to their rightful owner. You may not have known this, but “finders keepers” is not exactly a Jewish idea. These laws are outlined in detail in the Talmud (Bava Metziya, Chapter 2). While there are occasions when we may indeed keep what we find in the public domain, generally we are taught to make every effort to find the rightful owner and return the lost articles to them.
Historically, the biggest Lost & Found Department in the world was located in the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. During the three pilgrimage festivals—Passover, Shavuot and Sukkot—people who had found things would assemble at a special demarcated point to announce what they had found. Those who were looking for their lost valuables would have an opportunity to reclaim them provided they could identify them as theirs by sharing some of the unique characteristics of the objects in question.
It makes perfect sense that where Jews congregated in their masses was the ideal place for this mitzvah to be observed.
Today, the synagogue has taken the place of the Temple in Jerusalem, albeit to a much lesser degree. Clearly, we long for Moshiach and the beit hamikdash, but the synagogue is an obvious place for a Jew to go to find people who may have seen his or her lost article.
A story is told of the Kotzker Rebbe that a visiting Jew came to his shul. The rabbi welcomed him.
“Sholom Aleichem. How can we help you?”
“I came to find God.”
“God? God is all over! You can find Him in your own house, too!”
“So why then did I come here, rabbi?”
“I’ll tell you why you came: You came to find yourself!”
I believe that the genius of Judaism in identifying the synagogue as the “congregation” and the place to find each other goes far beyond finding a lost talis, umbrella, watch or wallet. It is in shul that we find God and where we can also rediscover our faith, our people and our community. But perhaps most important of all, we can find ourselves. It is not only material things we find there. We find spirituality: Our true, inner self, our soul. The real me, the real you, the real Jew comes out in shul.
So, you don’t really need an airline ticket to the Far East. All you need is to come to shul. But it does require some quality time in God’s house. Don’t just chat with the neighbor you haven’t seen since last Yom Kippur or check out the talent across the aisles. Open a book, whisper a prayer and listen to an inspiring word. Close your eyes and reflect on life and its meaning while the (hopefully) beautiful music provides some spiritual “surround sound.”
I want to suggest that we should all keep on the “lost and found” trail—for ourselves and for each other. Find some missing Jews. Find a Jew who may be lost spiritually, or simply does not have a shul to call home and bring them home. Bring them to shul. There are so many people out there who would love to come but may just need someone to invite them, welcome them and acclimatize them until they feel comfortable. Sit next to them in the synagogue and help them feel at home. It can be life-changing.
Please God, over this Yom Tov season, we will take the time to find ourselves and to reach out to others who would love to join us on the journey.
I wish you all Shanah Tovah—a blessed and meaningful New Year.