By Reb David • August 30, 2013
Across the Jewish world, it’s “Back to Shul Days,” a rough parallel to “Back to School.” Like the North American academic calendar, the Jewish calendar begins its annual cycle in late summer with Rosh Hashanah, literally the “head of the year.” Our tradition associates these days not only with the flowing cycle of time but also the inevitable cycle of change and our opportunity to make a profound difference in our lives and the lives of others. And not coincidentally, the Hebrew words for “year,” “change” and “difference” hail from the same root: shoneh.
So Rosh Hashanah invites us to ask: what “difference” do we want the “change” of this “year” to make for us? our loved ones? our relationships? our community? our values? our work? our play? our prayer? our bodies? our minds? our spirit? There is no part of our lives exempt from this question, and no limit to the human power to bring our answers to life.
Of course, bringing our answers to life means more than feeling and thinking them. While we are people of hearts and minds — and yes, the power of intention can be tremendous and transformative — we also are people of action. And often actions begin with words that have power to heal, hurt, create, destroy, teach, inspire and so much more. So on Rosh Hashanah, we not only feel and think our hopes and plans for change, but we also begin to speak them.
And because Hebrew is such a cool language, one of the key Hebrew words for “speech” shares the same root, shoneh, with “year,” “change” and “difference.” The Hebrew word for “language” is lashon (literally “tongue”), as in lashon hakodesh (“the holy language” — one of tradition’s terms for Hebrew itself). Our lashon (“speech”) comes mechanically from the “teeth” (shen). And what we “say” inherently is what we “teach”: In the Shema call for us to “Teach [our mutual love with God] to [y]our children” (Deut. 6:7), the Hebrew for “teach them to your children” is v’shinantam — once again, from the same root word.
It’s no wonder that these words — “year,” “change,” “difference,” “language,” “teeth” and “teach” — share a common Hebrew root. After all, they share a common idea: to transform. And if that’s not enough, the Hebrew letter shin (ש), the core of our root word, is known as the fire letter. (With only a bit of imagination, we might even see three flames rising from the letter shin itself.) Our inner flame, our words, our language, our teachings, our time, this season — all have power to transform.
So as the cycle of the Jewish year begins anew, we enter literally into the teeth of change. Change is on our lips, and change is on our calendar. What kind of change will it be? That’s partly up to us. Drawing nourishment and power from our community, let us together to speak our highest intentions for ourselves and each other. And in that merit, may the change we put in motion be worthy of the sweet and good year for which we will pray and commit ourselves — teeth, words and all. Shanah tovah.