Who am I? What are the most important things in my life? What do I want to be remembered for? If, as a purely hypothetical exercise, I were to imagine reading my own obituary, what would I want it to say? These are the questions Rosh Hashanah urges us to ask ourselves. As we pray to G-d to write us in the book of life, G-d asks us what we intend to do with this, His most precious gift. How do we use our time?
The shofar of rosh Hashanah reminds us of many things. It recalls the binding of Isaac, when G-d told Abraham to stop and offer up, instead, a ram that had been caught by its horn in a bush. It reminds us of the Torah, given at Mount Sinai, when “the whole mountain trembled violently, and the sound of the shofar grew louder and louder.” It was blown to mark the Jubilee, the fiftieth year, when freedom was proclaimed throughout the land.
The shofar was the sound of victory at Jericho. It was blown in celebration when King David brought the Ark to Jerusalem. Jeremiah calls it the sound of war. Amos called it the sound of danger: “When the shofar sounds in a city, do not the people tremble?” Joel called it the sound of the End of Days. One of the Psalms we say on Friday night calls it the herald proclaiming the arrival of the King: “With trumpets and the blast of the shofar, shout for joy before the Lord, the King.”
Maimonides, though, calls the shofar of Rosh Hashanah a wake-up call. He says that without such a call, we can sleepwalk through life, caring about trivialities. The sound of the shofar wakes us up and makes us conscious of the fragility of life. Who knows how much time we have left. None of us will live for ever. So – how do we use our time?
Much recent research on happiness yields surprising conclusions. We can spend our days in pursuit of wealth, yet beyond a certain comfort zone where we do not have to worry, greater wealth is not correlated with higher levels of happiness. The status of a particular job has less to do with happiness than the fulfillment we receive from a job well done.
The sources of happiness lie all around us: our family, our friends, the work we do voluntarily, the sense we have of being part of a community, the feeling we have that we are part of something worthwhile. A whole series of medical research projects has shown that faith, prayer and regular attendance at a house of worship actually have an effect on health and life expectancy. Not always: surely we all know of deeply spiritual people who die tragically young. But for the most part, faith gives us an anchor in the storm, a compass as we navigate the future, a shelter when we are buffeted by the winds of circumstance.
Often in the highly charged debates between atheists and religious believers, it seems as if all religion is, is a set of beliefs. It surely is, but that is not all it is. Judaism is a way of life, a code of conduct, a calendar. It shapes our experience of time into a kind of rhythm. Three times daily prayer, Shabbat, the festivals and the Days of Awe, function like paragraph- and chapter-breaks in the story of our life.
So we work, but one day in seven we also rest and spend more time than usual with family and friends. In shul we re-establish our links with the community. Through the festivals we relive the history of our people, and cure ourselves of the narrow sense of living for the moment. On Rosh Hashanah we ask, Why am I here? On Yom Kippur we try to make amends for the wrongs we have done, and rededicate ourselves to the things we hold holy.
Does a purely secular lifestyle offer a greater chance of happiness? One of the most extraordinary scientific findings of all is that in the space of two generations, as people in the West have grown more affluent, so they have grown less happy. Depression and stress related syndromes have all risen between 300 and 1,000 per cent. The phenomenon has a name: affluenza. The consumer society is built on making us want what we do not yet have. Judaism is predicated on celebrating what we do have.
No one’s last thought was, ‘I wish I had spent more time in the office.’ Almost no one’s obituary praises them for the car they drove, the clothes they wore, the homes they built, or the holidays they took. These things are not unimportant, but they are externalities. They are about what we own, not who we are. They give us short term pleasure, not long term fulfillment.
That is what Maimonides was talking about when he spoke about the shofar of Rosh Hashanah. It is God’s call to us: Where are you? What are you doing with your life? Do you care about the things that have value but not a price? Do you spend your time on the important, or only on the urgent?
Judaism is full of details. As the great architect Mies van der Rohe said, ‘G-d is in the details.’ But the details are brush-strokes in a magnificent painting which we can only appreciate if we step back and look at it as a whole.
Judaism turns life into a work of art. It consecrates the love between husbands and wives, and parents and children. It sanctifies our most physical acts, through the laws of kashrut and family purity. It engages our heart in prayer, our mind in study. It asks us, through the laws of tzedakah, to look on our possessions as things G-d has entrusted into our safekeeping, with the condition that we share some of what we have with those who have less.
Chessed – the love that is kindness – binds our communities into networks of support for people experiencing crisis, illness or bereavement. Jewish faith, which suffuses all our acts but especially the act of prayer, tells us that we are not alone in the universe, that at the heart of being is One who created us in love, hears our prayers, and believes in us more than we believe in ourselves.
Judaism helps us hear the music beneath the noise, the theme beyond the episodes, the meaning that links our days and years into a story of a life well lived because it has been lived in the light of high ideals. We will always fall short; everyone does. But we stand as tall as the values that inspire us, and those of Judaism are the highest ever asked of a people. So as you hear the shofar, think of what, in the year to come, you will live for. And may G-d write you, your family, and all Israel in the Book of Life. Shanah tovah.