Around January 1 every year there is a lot of talk about New Year’s Resolutions. Do we Jews have anything like that at Rosh Hashanah time?
Though we have the whole repentance, t’shuvah thing happening, which is far more intense and introspective than resolving to lose weight or to watch the budget more carefully, I am not sure that our deep reflections take the form of “New Year’s resolutions.” I checked out the Top Ten New Year’s Resolutions on the Web, and they really do not sound like the kind of self-searching that is expected of us at this time of year.
Our focus is on repairing hurts that may have been incurred by us, and a commitment to raise the bar spiritually for ourselves during the upcoming year. However, engaging in sincere repentance involves a strong degree of resolve regarding the future. That said, I appreciate your question and have a New Year’s resolution to suggest that you might consider that could address both the Jewish approach to the New Year and the more secular form of New Year’s resolutions.
This year I challenge community members to pick up the Tanach, the 24 books of the Jewish scripture, and to read it! No Jew should spend their life mysteriously wondering what our holiest of books contains. It is not an extraordinarily long work, nor is it inaccessible. There are even guides such as Telushkin’s Biblical Literacy and others out there, but don’t restrict your experience of the text to a second-hand digestion. Read it yourself using a good translation.
If you are not yet convinced or even tempted by my proposal, I offer you two sets of enticements. First, for those of you of the “Bible is boring” ilk, here are some shocking stories to tempt you into Tanach territory: tales that one would never expect to find in the Bible. A sample of the outrageous and incredible stories that you will find in our Tanach comparable only, perhaps, to the headlines found on supermarket checkout aisles! If this doesn’t lure you in, keep reading — the poignant, touching selections are next. First, the scandalous!
Disobeying prophet killed, but not eaten by lion!
Daniel gets all the top press. Tossed into the lion’s den he survives miraculously, but are prophets always spared by ferocious felines? Not in the Book of Kings I, chapter 13. Here we encounter the case of the disobeying prophet, instructed not to eat a morsel of food in a town of idol worshippers. Hunger, however, gets the best of him, and he meets his end in an Henri Rousseauesque scene with a lion and donkey standing over his body. Check it out.
Babylonian king turns into werewolf!
What is the suitable punishment for a human arrogant enough to destroy the house of the Lord? According to the Book of Daniel, “he was driven from men, and ate grass like an ox, and his body was wet with the dew of heaven, till his hair was grown like eagles’ feathers, and his nails like birds’ claws.” Lycanthropy is a disease associated with werewolf-like symptoms and is the probable diagnosis for Nebuchadnezzar’s perplexing condition. You’ve got to read it to believe it, the Book of Daniel, chapter 4.
Concubine’s body divided into 12 parts!
This particularly gruesome tale is found in the end of the Book of Judges. It is not a favorite, to say the least. It is an untoward, grisly tale emanating from a brutal societal dysfunction: a stranger who comes to town is denied hospitality, save by one individual. He is then victimized by the townsfolk, who rape his concubine through the night, leaving him with no choice but to divide her body into 12 parts and distribute them among the 12 tribes demanding vengeance. The tribe of Benjamin is never the same. The story is a striking parallel to the Sodom episode found in Genesis.
For those who are of a more delicate deportment, I offer these lofty transcendent passages, the likes of which we find nowhere else in the Bible.
Poetry of poetry
In the final chapter of Ecclesiastes, King Solomon paints a plaintive, graceful scene of the slow sunset of each of our lives: the human body likened to a town becoming quiet at the end of the day, settling in for the evening. “And the doors to the street are shut, with the noise of the hand mill growing fainter, and the song of the bird growing feebler…” Every time I read this passage I am moved intensely by its beauty and gentle nuances.
Romance of romances
What greater poignancy is there than Chapter Five of the Songs of Songs, where our lyrical suitor comes knocking on the door of his beloved, only to find her ensconced in bed, hands anointed in oils, feet cleansed from the dust of the day, stymied in her efforts to reach him. He departs, she runs out desperately searching for him, the watchmen find her and beat her, but she continues to long for her lost beloved.
This scene captures the imagination or Jewish thinkers — it is the People Israel searching for the Almighty despite all adversity, seeking to respond to the knocking of God’s desire to connect with His People, “Kol Dodi Dofek,the sound of my beloved, is knocking.”
Sadness of sadnesses
As David mourns the tragic loss of Jonathan and Saul, he laments their deaths with these striking words: “How are the mighty fallen in the midst of the battle! Saul and Jonathan were loved and dear in their lives, and in their death they were not divided; they were swifter than eagles, they were stronger than lions.” David is nothing if not the passionate sweet singer of Israel. His psalms are engraved in the consciousness of the pious, well worth a good look on a lonely evening.
With all of this said, I feel an overwhelming powerless in expressing my deep fervor for Tanach study. It’s akin to describing the love of your life to a skeptical listener, but try I must. For the Jewish people, the Tanach is at the core of our being, it speaks to us today as it did centuries ago. Come on, make a New Year’s resolution in September!
Rivy Poupko Kletenik is an internationally renowned educator and Head of School at the Seattle Hebrew Academy. If you have a question that’s been tickling your brain, send Rivy an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.