The approach of Rosh Hashanah always takes me back in memory to my Bar Mitzvah, which took place on Shabbat Teshuvah — the "Sabbath of Repentance" — that comes between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.
Two weighty questions preoccupied me that day in 1964. One: What did it mean that God called Jews and the world to "repent" or "return" because all of us had "stumbled in sin?"
The prophet Hosea, whose words I chanted that morning, insisted in God's name that God cared about how we treated one another, and that we could all do better. He promised that God would help us do better if we turned to the task. I marveled at this promise. It was and remains a great mystery to me.
The other big question on my mind that September day was whether the Phillies, under Manager Gene Mauch, could hold on to their position atop the National League and win the pennant for the first time in my life.
The optimists among my friends took victory as a near-certainty. The Phillies were six games ahead. Things looked really promising. The pessimists warned the team would blow it. And it turned out that they were right. The Phillies lost 13 of the next 20 games. This, too, was a mystery to me. Was it bad pitching, bad managing, bad luck? Maybe it was fate.
I bring up the connection between Rosh Hashanah and the Phillies because it gets to the heart of what the Jewish holidays mean to me each fall.
In a word: It's not fate.
How things go is largely up to us, even if we do not control the circumstances of our lives. The New Year is a time at once joyful and solemn for Jews because it marks a new beginning for each of us. It carries the assurance that we all do get a second chance, and urges us to seize hold of it.
The world, too, can be better than it is — a hope desperately needed this year.
We have witnessed so much suffering, in the Middle East and elsewhere. So little peace for Israel or Iraq, Darfur or the Congo. I can still chant by heart, thanks to months of practice for my Bar Mitzvah, Hosea's promise that we can change this. "The person who is wise will consider these words. The person who is prudent will take note of them. For the paths of the Lord are smooth. The righteous can walk on them."
Hosea urged Jews more than 2,500 years ago to "blow a shofar in Zion" so as to call the people to turn and return. Jews still blow a ram's horn at Rosh Hashanah for exactly the same reason. We need to hear loud and clear, again and again, the message to which it summons us.
Many interpretations have been given to the notes struck by the horn, but the one that means most to me is this.
The shofar's first sound, tekiah, is a wake-up call; it calls us to attention. Look around, it says. Things are not okay. Your work is needed to set them — and yourself — right.
The second sound made by the shofar is called shevarim, or "breaks." The world is broken. The horn imitates its cries, preventing us from stopping up our ears or our hearts.
Teruah — a series of short blasts one after another — gives us marching orders. Change requires small steps that each of us has to take, modestly but with determination. Overreaching will not work.
The shofar-blowing ends with a return to the first notes, longer this time: a "great tekiah." It lets us know what victory sounds like. We can change our ways. So can the world.
Honesty compels us to concede that we've tried before to turn things around and haven't managed it. Experiences of failure haunt all of us, not just fans of the '64 Phillies. It's why we need Rosh Hashanah each year — to remind us that this beginning can be different.
Arnold M. Eisen is chancellor-elect of the Jewish Theological Seminary.