Why are we all gathered here tonight? What are we supposed to be doing on Rosh Hashanah? If you look in the Torah, you’re not going to find much of an answer:
בַּחֹ֨דֶשׁ הַשְּׁבִיעִ֜י בְּאֶחָ֣ד לַחֹ֗דֶשׁ
In the seventh month, on the first day of the month
יִהְיֶ֤ה לָכֶם֙ שַׁבָּת֔וֹן
You shall observe complete rest
זִכְר֥וֹן תְּרוּעָ֖ה מִקְרָא־קֹֽדֶשׁ
A sacred occasion commemorated with loud blasts – as it is traditionally translated
But why is it sacred? And what are we commemorating with these loud blasts? The text is silent. Nothing about this being the Jewish New Year. Nothing about judgment, repentance, forgiveness, self reflection, prayer, charity – all the things we’ve come to associate with Rosh Hashana. The Torah doesn’t even give the holiday a name.
Which leaves the ancient rabbis of the Talmud scrambling to explain what happened on the first day of Tishrei to merit a holiday. So they hone in on a word that seems almost incidental to the Torah’s description: זִכְר֥וֹן – Zichron, translated as “commemorate”, as in “a sacred occasion commemorated with loud blasts.” They ask, where else does that Torah use that word?
They point us to three separate stories with the same theme: Sarah and Rachel, the first and fourth of our foremothers, and Chana, the mother of the prophet Samuel. Each of these women had long been praying for a child, and the text says that God remembered them by making them pregnant. Remembered. Zichron. From this the Rabbis deduce that on Rosh Hashanah we’re celebrating the Divine Remembering of Sarah, Rachel, and Chana.
This is a radical reinterpretation of the Torah’s opaque verse on Rosh Hashanah. It invites us to completely shift our conception of the holiday. Zichron – memory – is the defining characteristic of this Mikrah Kodesh, of this sacred occasion. Rosh Hashanah is about being remembered.
What does it mean to be remembered? What does it mean to be forgotten? I invite you to close your eyes or soften your gaze, take a deep breath, and notice what comes up for you when you consider those questions.
To better understand what kind of remembering we’re meant to be experiencing on Rosh Hashanah, let’s do what I usually do when I’m seeking wisdom: let’s turn to the wise women in our tradition. Specifically, Sarah, Rachel, and Chana, our three ancestors who were remembered by the Divine on Rosh Hashanah. What might we learn from them about what we’re supposed to be doing today?
Sarah, Avraham’s wife, was promised that her offspring would yield a nation as multitudinous as the stars in the sky and the sands on the earth. And then… nothing. She was forgotten.
So if Rosh Hashanah is an opportunity to take stock of our lives, let’s take a moment to consider, what promises were made to you that you feel like have been unfulfilled?
You were told by your parents, by your teachers, by the movies you watched, the Instagram memes you scrolled, that if you did a certain checklist of things, your life would look a certain way. Did you spend your life doing all the things on the checklist – and putting other things on the backburner, making sacrifices and compromises to get that payoff? And perhaps now you’re realizing that you were lied to. You’ve done everything on the checklist, and life doesn’t look like you were promised.
Part of what made Sarah feel so forgotten is how old she was – is there part of you that perhaps feels like your moment has passed?
Rachel and Chana had similar experiences – not only were their dreams not fulfilled, but their husband’s other wives were all having lots of children, which deepened their sense of being forgotten. Maybe, like Sarah, Rachel, and Chana, you’re comparing yourself to others in your life – why doesn’t my life look more like theirs? If only I had what they have, then I’d be happy. What’s wrong with me that I don’t have what they have? In what ways do you find yourself doing that kind of comparison?
So these three ancestors help us connect to the ways in our lives in which we’ve felt forgotten. Rosh Hashanah is the day that we are meant to be remembered. What does that mean for us today?
I don’t believe in a God that forgets or remembers us. I don’t actually believe in a God that is separate from us at all, but we’ll be talking more about that on Yom Kippur. For the purpose of today, I’ll say that it’s not like God woke up one morning and said, “Oh shoot, I forgot about Sarah. There she is, I am going to remember her now.” We are created in the Divine Image, which means like the God of the Torah who remembered our foremothers, we have the capacity to remember ourselves.
So how do we do that? Our foremothers teach us three ways:
The first step is to remember those earlier versions of ourselves, those versions who clung so tightly to that promise, and to look back on them with compassion. We made the best decisions we could based on the information we had, the lived wisdom we had accumulated up until that point, the limited resources that were available to us.
I invite you to take a deep breath and channel the Divine Rememberer within us all to connect with those parts of ourselves that are still hurting from feeling forgotten, lied to, abandoned. Hold them, listen to them, and bless them.
Bless them for the trust they put in others, even if it might have been misplaced.
Bless them for the connection they so deeply wanted, even if they didn’t end up getting it.
And bring them along for the next chapter of your journey, because their wisdom is an essential ingredient for the person you are becoming.
The second step to remembering ourselves is that we need to get pregnant. Not right now – maybe later tonight if the mood strikes, it is Friday night after all. But the Jewish mystics teach that pregnancy in our ancestral myths is symbolic of what we are preparing to birth out into the world. It’s not a coincidence that the way the Divine remembered these three women was by blessing them with pregnancy.
So if being forgotten is about being unable to fulfill our promise in the world, then being remembered is about reconnecting to that purpose. Teshuva is often translated as repentance, but it actually means return. In order to return, we need to remember where we were originally heading.
I find Rosh Hashanah to be a useful mile-marker. Close your eyes and think back to where you were sitting one year ago. What was on your mind back then? What felt important to you? What possibilities or opportunities were getting you excited about the year to come? And how did that pan out? How have you gone off track this year? What did you allow to distract you? In what ways have you forgotten who you really are, or what is really important to you? Rosh Hashanah is the day of Zichron – the day to remember, refocus, and recommit. And in doing so, we get pregnant with new possibilities for the year ahead.
The last step to remembering ourselves is that we don’t need to do it alone. I was chatting with my dear teacher Reb Art Green this week, discussing this topic of Zichron, and he said, “Remember is an invitation to Re-Member, to remind ourselves that we are members of a community, a tribe, a lineage, a family.” We can extract ourselves from the narrow circumstances in which we’ve felt forgotten, and broaden the aperture to feel the love of all the people in our lives who do remember us. And there is a long line of ancestors standing behind us, their hands on our shoulders, celebrating our wins, cheering us on through our stumbles.
There is a reason we gather together in community on Rosh Hashanah, rather than meditating on a hilltop somewhere. If you want to remember yourself, surround yourself with people who see you for who you truly are, for your untapped potential. People who will hold you accountable when you stray, who will hold up a mirror so you can see yourself more clearly, who will help you remember when you feel forgotten.
Reflect on who in your life does that for you – and commit this year to invest in those relationships and to build new ones to support you.
A Blessing for the New Year
Rosh Hashanah is not about giving birth – that’s Passover. Rosh Hashanah is about getting pregnant, it’s about inception. It’s about just planting the seed, not fixating yet on the harvest.
So to begin the process of re-membering, I invite you to consider: What intentions for this year do we want to sow? And perhaps more importantly, what new version of ourselves do we want to gestate? If you could surrender other’s narratives of who you need to be in order to be loved, who might you give yourself permission to become? Before you started following someone else’s checklist, what was on yours?
The poem “I have been a thousand different women,” by Emory Hall, beautifully channels the experience of our foremothers by connecting the act of remembering with the act of being reborn, which to me is the sacred work of Rosh Hashanah:
with all the women you once were.
lay flowers at their feet.
offer them incense and honey and forgiveness.
honor them and give them your silence.
and let them be.
for they are the bones of the temple you sit in now.
for they are the rivers of wisdom leading you toward the sea.
We give thanks to our foremothers for these three paths to teshuva, of returning to ourselves. My blessing to all of us this Rosh Hashanah is that we enter the new year with compassion for our previous selves, pregnant with energizing possibility, and deeply re-membered in community.
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