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Rosh Hashanah 2012 -- God gives second chances and we should, too

The Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashanah, isn’t just for Jews. It is a Jewish celebration to be sure; one with roots going back to the Hebrew Bible, but it celebrates something fundamental to all human beings – the need for second chances.  

The holiday begins at sundown on Sunday, Sept. 16 and at its core lays the teaching that God both gives second chances and invites us to do the same – to ourselves and to others. And after all is said and done, who doesn’t need a second chance somewhere in their lives?

Each of us has something we wish we could do over, start fresh or finish differently. Don’t you? Rosh Hashanah promises us that we can transcend the past and get that second chance that each of us needs in at least some part of our lives – whether you are Jewish or not.  

By celebrating the birth of the world and of humanity, not the birth of the Jewish nation or of the first Jew, Rosh Hashanah celebrates that whatever particular faith we follow, we share a common origin and destiny. Part of that destiny is the promise of a second chance, even if it’s our hundredth one!

Each of us has something we wish we could do over, start fresh or finish differently. Don’t you? Rosh Hashanah promises us that we can transcend the past and get that second chance that each of us needs in at least some part of our lives – whether you are Jewish or not.

We are invited to see both ourselves and each other in light of that promise. In fact, Rosh Hashanah teaches that with a bit of work, there is no past that cannot be overcome, and no person who does not deserve the opportunity to do so.   

For those who would exploit this insight toward a particular political end, it should also be noted that a second chance does not necessarily mean a second term. Instead, it means that decisions about our future should not be based entirely on the past, nor our thinking about what is possible, defined entirely by what has already occurred.

Additionally, the holiday offers an important alternative to the dominant culture’s common responses to past events we wish we could have handled differently or seen to a better conclusion. Rather than naively wishing the past away, as many new age gurus would have us do, or holding onto to stubborn self-righteousness which sees change as a sign of weakness, as so many others would have us believe, Rosh Hashanah celebrates the possibility of endless second chances without pretending about what has come before.  

Both things, and people, can change and still remain the same. Disruption and continuity are not diametrically opposed, but two parts of a larger whole, whether in nature or in our lives.

Think about the moon – the central symbol of the entire Jewish calendar, and whose appearance signals the blowing of the ram’s horn (Shofar in Hebrew) on Rosh Hashanah, according to Leviticus 23:24, Numbers 29:1 and Psalms 84:1. The “old” moon which defines the previous month vanishes, and a “new” moon appears. But is it really a new moon, or is it the same moon? The answer is yes!

What’s true for the moon is true for us, and celebrating that fact is fundamental to appreciating Rosh Hashanah in all of its potential beauty and meaning. Just as the “old” moon gets a seemingly limitless number of second chances to be celebrated as a “new” moon, we too get limitless second chances and celebrate that fact on Rosh Hashanah.

We can all add a new page in the book of our lives – one which like the addition of a new page in any book, neither erases or undoes what came before it, but one which can transcend those earlier pages and the stories they contain. Each of us get a second chance – a chance to return to the person we most want to be and to living the life we most deeply desire. That’s the very human promise which lies at the heart of the Jewish New Year.

This Rosh Hashanah, give yourself the second chances to which you are entitled, and do the same for others also. Experience for yourself, how much there is to celebrate in doing each, and experience the full power of a cycle as old as the moon and as rich as the thousands year old tradition of the Bible itself.

Rabbi Brad Hirschfield is the author of "You Don’t Have to Be Wrong for Me to Be Right: Finding Faith Without Fanaticism," and president of Clal-The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership.