Getting to know yourself before Rosh Hashanah

The year 2020 will go down in the books as containing one of the more unusual Rosh Hashanahs in Jewish history. For the majority of Jews in America, synagogue gatherings are out, or at the very least modified to such a large degree as to be unrecognizable compared with past communal gatherings. The annual family get-togethers around the holiday table, a Rosh Hashanah staple throughout Jewish history, will be set aside for the sake of safety. And many will find themselves dipping the apple in the honey all alone in the confines of the quiet of their homes. 

It will be harder than other years to tap into the spirit of the day, and yet, in some ways, the silence and stillness of the past many months at home has prepared us most fittingly for the upcoming holiest days on the Jewish calendar.

If there is one person that COVID-19 has introduced us to, it is ourselves — the good, the bad and the ugly! Closing regular workplaces meant more time at home with no one but ourselves for company, and closing the schools down meant more time with our children. With the humdrum of busy life replaced with the overwhelming silence of life in quarantine, we better familiarized ourselves with the goings-on of our inner life; a life previously encountered, or relegated, to occasional moments of quiet and contemplation. We have become experts at identifying our ever-changing emotions and moods. We’ve better pinpointed our motivating drives and aspirations, and accurately diagnosed the state of our relationships. 

Corona has awakened a growing awareness within ourselves, a greater mindfulness of our reality. And if we have been sensitive enough, corona has served us with a report card of sorts, grading us on how we’re doing life. It’s been both a sobering and an enlightening ride, one which will hopefully lead to a clarity whether the path we’re charting in life is properly aligned with our core values and aspirations, and a realization that it’s not too late to change course. 

When seen in this light, the current pandemic has served many of the same roles which the upcoming days of awe typically assume in our lives — a period set aside for reflection and self-evaluation. And instead of 10 days, we’ve had over six months to work on this! We might be ready for this year’s Rosh Hashanah in ways we’ve never been before!

You might call these psychological byproducts of life within a pandemic a heightened state of collective mindfulness — a growing ability to identify the reality within us and around us. And mindfulness awakens us to the immense possibilities of life and living. We begin not only “capturing the moment,” but experiencing the moments of our lives in their richness and vibrancy. 

Thich Nhat Hanh, a Vietnamese Buddhist monk, beautifully sums up the awesome effects of mindfulness in his book “Peace Is Every Step.” His words are worthy of our serious contemplation: 

“In our daily lives, we may see the people around us, but if we lack mindfulness, they are just phantoms, not real people, and we ourselves are also ghosts. Practicing mindfulness enables us to become a real person. When we are a real person, we see real people around us, and life is present in all its richness.” (p. 22)

Perhaps the practice of mindfulness was also on the mind of the beloved sage of Israel, Hillel the Elder (110 BCE), many years earlier, when he penned one of the most famous adages in Pirkei Avot (1:14):

“If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?”

Hillel’s teaching is usually translated this way, the first phrase a take on self-sufficiency — a call to pull yourself up by the bootstraps, so to speak, because no one else will do it for you. But the literal translation of the phrase tells a different story: “If I don’t have myself (ani), who am I?” In other words — if you are not conscious of who you are and who you have become — who are you, really? It is the product of sensitive contemplation of the self which leads to a shining clarity of self, of “ani-hood.” Such clarifying practice should lead the individual to the realization of what kind of real-world difference he or she is making in the world. Hence — “But if I am only for myself, what am I?” And, of course, the spirit of mindfulness is most poignantly expressed on the focus on the here and now — “And if not now, when?”

I believe we are better primed than ever to have a successful High Holiday season. Corona has helped us do the hard work of self-reflection. Let us hope that Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur serve as the realization of what has been a year of unique consciousness. 

Rabbi Yogi Robkin is the outreach director of DATA of Plano. He can be reached at

Leave a Reply