03 September 2021
Rosh Hashanah (the Jewish New Year) begins Monday evening, and I imagine I’m not alone in thinking about transitions. This past year has been one of constant changes, pivots, and adjustments. At many points when it felt like things were stabilizing, they shifted once again. I must admit it was challenging at times to ground myself. Even anticipated changes, such as dropping our third child off for his first year of college or watching our youngest begin her senior year of high school, felt more unsettling than I would have expected.
In these moments, my tendency is to focus on the positive. I recognize that every change, even if it seems overwhelming, has the potential to be exciting and rejuvenating. At Federation, keeping this focus helped us better understand how Jewish life is evolving and how we might leverage these changes to strengthen our community. Moreover, this forward orientation is critical during times of change and has guided many of our interactions across the community as we sought to remain nimble to meet evolving needs.
In a recent conversation, however, a colleague brought up an alternative view by explaining a particular debate between the houses of Hillel and Shammai—two Talmudic schools of thought that regularly engaged in lively discussions on issues of ritual practice, theology, and ethics. While Beit (house) Hillel often “won”—and much of modern Jewish practice and belief reflects these prevailing perspectives, both are recorded in the Talmud and considered relevant. Personally, I’ve always had a certain fondness for Beit Shammai, who, despite losing so many arguments, never stopped engaging.
One interesting example of their differing philosophies centers on Chanukah. Shammai’s disciples argued we should light eight candles on the first night and decrease them one by one each evening as the holiday reaches its endpoint. Hillel lobbied to start with one candle and increase to eight, claiming we should always build up in matters of holiness. I’ve been thinking a lot about this story as we approach Rosh Hashanah.
The symbolism of increasing the light felt particularly necessary this past year, and not just for Chanukah. By focusing on possibility, we move toward the light—toward better times, expanded horizons, and greater opportunity. Yet, the interplay between the two candle lighting methods speaks to the complexity of transition. We must also recognize that change can also mean moving towards darkness—holding space to experience the challenging periods in our lives, doors closing, and loss.
I believe channeling these dual perspectives can help us forge ahead into the New Year. Guided by our many learnings from living through a pandemic, we can face the unknowns before us.
So, no matter how you say farewell to 5781 and ring in 5782—listening to the shofar, dipping apples in honey, or simply spending a few minutes thinking about what has passed and what is to come, I wish you and yours a happy, healthy, and meaningful New Year.
Shabbat Shalom and Shanah Tovah,