Rosh HaShanah: A Day to Make the Invisible Visible

September 5, 2018Rabbi Sharon G. Forman

Years ago, I enrolled our toddler son in a summer day camp at our synagogue. He had happily attended a 3’s nursery school program there, joining his new friends without any drama, so I was baffled when he clung to me, desperate and inconsolable, at camp drop-off.

I asked the counselor and camp director to help me figure out a non-traumatic way to help my son adjust to the camp environment without forcing him to “cry it out” when I left. They hatched a plan that had me sit in the back of the classroom reading a book or newspaper. Visible yet invisible, my son could see me whenever he needed to, even as I refrained from making eye contact with him.

Each day, my trips to the restroom and short walks grew longer and more frequent and my son moved incrementally toward independence. Within two weeks – just as camp was ending – he felt secure in his environment.

Fast forward nearly a decade.

This summer, I am preparing to drop my oldest child at college for her freshman year. A nine-hour car ride will separate her from our family for months at a time. Although I am trying not to mimic my son’s melodramatic clinginess all those summers ago, the words of his wise camp director ring in my ears, this time with a twist: Now is the time for me to be invisible yet visible, hopeful that the values our family has instilled in her will remain visible when she faces potentially thorny choices and ethical decisions.

As we approach the High Holidays, many of us find ourselves thinking about loved ones who have died, people who are invisible yet visible to us in profoundly meaningful ways. At this season, we are often confronted by their absence, feeling the emptiness at the holiday table or in the pews during services.

In the Torah, the ancient new year, Rosh HaShanah, has many names. Among them is Yom HaZikaron, the day of memory. According to legend, God remembers us and all of our deeds – both worthy and flawed – on this day. Rosh HaShanah is a day on which we, too, remember – people we love, ideals we hope to attain, and values we cherish and wish to see reflected in the world – and strive to feel the presence of people and things we cannot see, to make the invisible visible.

The rabbis who compiled the MishnahMishnahמִשְׁנָהLiterally “repetition.” Mishnah is a Jewish legal code edited by Rabbi Judah HaNasi in Palestine in 220 C.E. It is the first Jewish legal literature after the codification of the Hebrew scriptures around 90 C.E. Also called “Torah Shebal Peh,” “Oral Torah” or “Oral Law.”  (the first part of the Talmud) envisioned a poetic, section of liturgy in the traditional Rosh HaShanah morning service focused on three specific things: God’s sovereignty (malchuyot), memory (zichronot), and the calls of the shofar (shofarot).

As we utter the words of this liturgy, may God remember us in the span of history and show us kindness. For those of us who struggle with anthropomorphic images of a king-like God, may Rosh HaShanah inspire us to pray for a world of compassion. May our prayers summon our own memories of who we used to be, as well as visions of who we are today and who we are striving to become. May the words – whether on the page or in our hearts – help us catch a glimpse of the loved ones we no longer see and the soul we so often hide from ourselves. On Rosh HaShanah, let us listen to the quiet voice within, the one we can indeed hear, and perhaps even see, on the first day of the Jewish New Year.

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