Many of the rituals and activities around Rosh Hashanah are brimming with symbolism. From the round challot symbolizing completeness, to the special foods eaten such as honey cake and apple dipped in honey for a sweet year, and Tashlich, where we walk to the beach and symbolically throw our sins to the sea.
Our table on the first night is always adorned with a big fish head, which stares out at me a little disturbingly. It is a custom among many to eat from the head of a fish, and to accompany this with the prayer “may we be a head and not a tail”. While a more contemporary, Yiddish-inspired version of this adage might be that we be “a mentch rather than a shvantz”, perhaps there is a little more to this metaphor, and a closer connection to the Holiday itself.
Rosh Hashanah occurs on the first and second days of the Hebrew month of Tishrei, and is the start of the Jewish year as counted since the creation of the world. However, the correct translation of the term is “head of the year”, rather than “start”. This anthropomorphic naming teaches us that just like the head/mind of a person sets their direction, so our thoughts and actions on Rosh Hashanah are a model for how our year will proceed. Unlike the celebrations widely associated with the secular New Year, the Jewish equivalent has a far more solemn and reflective mood.
We can take this further still. Chassidic sources espouse the principle of “mo’ach shalit al halev” – that “the brain should rule the heart” – as a fundamental code to live by. This bears a striking resemblance to Steven Covey’s first habit (the first of the 7 Habits of Highly Successful People) – “Be Proactive”, or “take responsibility”. Covey breaks down the word “responsibility” as the “ability to respond”, and explains this as the unique capacity of humans to intercept our instinctive reaction to stimulus and choose to respond in a different way. The great psychiatrist Viktor Frankl drew on a similar technique as a way of (emotionally) surviving the Holocaust, drawing on his inner spiritual strength despite being confronted with atrocities on a daily basis.
Covey? Fish Heads? Frankl? Rosh Hashanah? These themes all converge to the message of personal growth and leadership. Change cannot easily be noticed through frequent observation. But the turn of a new year is an appropriate juncture to reflect back on our achievements over the last twelve months, and to use Rosh Hashanah as a launching pad for a new phase of our own growth. The rituals and symbols are there to inspire us to look within and just as the world is spiritually renewed each year, we renew ourselves for the next stage of our life journey forward.
May we all be inscribed and sealed for a good and healthy New Year!
The article originally appeared on Galus Australis, and the article image is taken from there.