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Saying Goodbye to the Jewish Guilt this Rosh Hashanah

“I grew up thinking that if you don’t do Rosh Hashana right, then terrible things are going to happen,” Jamie commented during a discussion of the High Holidays. By the nods around the room, it was clear that he wasn’t the only one who grew up with the Jewish guilt strong around this time of year.

The question is: Is there any truth to this?

Rosh Hashana is the New Year, when G-d judges us and decides what the upcoming year will be like for us. Who is going to live or die in the upcoming year? Who will be healthy? Who will have serenity? Who will have a stressful year? When we think of it like this, it is clear that it is a weighty day and it is understandable how it can give rise to the impression of G-d judging us dispassionately.

Think of it like this though: The world is filled with many, many ants. When was the last time you paid any attention to ants? If you are older than three and the ants aren’t in your house, most probably you don’t pay much, if any attention to ants. Why?

Contrast that with someone who has just bought themselves an expensive new car and the care and attention they will give that new car. What is the difference between the ant and the car? To put it quite bluntly, we don’t generally pay much attention to ants because we don’t really care about ants.

With billions of people in the world, we are like ants to G-d, yet with one huge difference. G-d pays attention to us, G-d holds us accountable. In Pirkei Avot, Ethics of the Fathers, Akavya ben Mehalel, one of the sages, advises us to reflect on this idea so that we will not come to sin – “before whom you are destined to give a judgment and accounting—before the supreme King of Kings, the Holy One, blessed be He.”

Note that he did not say, reflect that if you mess up, G-d is going to punish you. No, he tells us to reflect that we will have to be accountable to G-d. What does that mean?? The world is huge, with billions of people in it, and G-d cares about what I do? G-d is going to hold me accountable for the little things I do in this vast universe? Yes, we are accountable –  we must realize that if G-d holds us accountable that means that G-d cares about us, that G-d loves us. 

Accountability is an act of love and care. A student recently told me that growing up she took dance competitively. Her dance teacher was quite tough on them, and occasionally she would tell the kids, the reason why I’m correcting you and calling you out when you get it wrong is because I love you and I want you to become the best dancers you can be. Even as a child she found it strange that the teacher had to say that, because she knew this teacher loved her. When we care about and love someone, we hold them accountable. 

When we reflect on the idea that G-d holds us accountable, we remember that you are so very important, and every single thing that you do is noticed by God. When we recognize how Divine and how special we are, we are also much less likely to slip up and do wrong.

In fact, this is reflected in the morning prayer of modeh ani which is said upon awakening where we thank G-d for giving us another day. We end the prayer with the phrase rabah emunatecha – great is your faithfulness. We are not referring to our faith in G-d, but to G-d’s faith in us. G-d gives us another day, because G-d believes in us!

So as Rosh Hashana approaches again, and we are faced with the thought of G-d holding us accountable, take a moment to reflect on what that means. You are so important and your actions matter so much, that G-d, Master of the whole universe pays attention to what you do and holds you accountable! 

Wishing you a Shana Tova.

The ideas here are based on the author’s new book, Living Beautifully, How to bring meaning, joy and love into your life based on the timeless wisdom of Pirkei Avot. 

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