09/16/2012 11:47 am ET Updated Nov 16, 2012

Who Shall Live and Who Shall Die? Rosh Hashanah and the Meaning of the Jewish New Year

For Jewish people, Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish Near Year of 5773 arrives this evening (Sept. 16). Unlike the Chinese New Year, Jews don't set-off tumultuous parades replete with snaking dragons and firecrackers in the streets -- in fact, in many Jewish communities, the streets are deserted. Unlike the secular New Year's holiday on Dec. 31 and Jan. 1, there are no bacchanalian soirees with endless champagne, noisemakers and giant crystal balls descending from atop Times Square. Jews eat hardy and pray hardy, but they don't party hardy on their new year. While there are a whole bunch of artery-clogging meals on the order of a Thanksgiving, a preponderance of time is spent in synagogue.

These holidays are mandated in the Torah to take place on the exact dates on the Jewish calendar that they do. The shofar (ram or gazelle's horn) is blown repeatedly on Rosh Hashanah -- a sound that's piercing (when done well, and it's difficult to do) and ancient and eternal all at the same time -- a sound that's meant to awaken us from the torpor of our daily routines; to jolt our seats to the upright and locked position and focus on things way bigger than us and our often petty concerns.

During ancient times, particularly at Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement) when the holy Temple stood in Jerusalem, the High Priest (Kohen Gadol) would enter the Holy of Holies where the Ark of the Covenant, containing the stone tablets of the Ten Commandments were housed and the Divine Presence (a physical manifestation of God) would enter those sacred precincts -- and it was the only time of the year it did so. The High Holy Days (or High Holidays) are called so in part owing to the nature of actual contact with God that would manifest itself in the Temple and it was because of that contact that the Temple Mount and its environs are considered sacred.

In the High Holiday machzor (prayer book) we intone repeatedly: "On Rosh Hashanah it is inscribed and on the fast day of Yom Kippur it is sealed ... who shall live and who shall die (and by which unpleasant ways) ... who will wax rich, who made poor, who will be exalted and who brought low" as our individual and communal fate is determined in the celestial court. Nothing short of life and death itself are at stake, which is why these upcoming holidays are considered the paramount religious occasions of the year for Jewish people. It's what packs the house. For the majority of Jews there is a sense that if one fails to show up for the High Holidays, it could be mega-bad karma: Why thumb your nose at the big guy and take a silly risk by staying home?

The notion of "who shall live and who shall die" is more palpable the older one gets. Kids, teens and 20-somethings are blessed with a sense of indestructibility and immortality. As Katie Perry and other pop singers intone, "We'll be young forever." As time goes by and the warranty starts to run out on our individual machinery, we become more acutely aware of the fragility of our existence. Age is not just a number. There is no end of actuarial data indicating the parameters of the human lifespan -- and if statistics don't register in one's consciousness, we can't not be aware of the passing of many of our elder loved ones. Hence, more intense and purposeful prayer on the High Holidays can be found on the faces of those in the congregation with more mileage on their odometers, as making one's peace and standing in good with the Lord mean a lot more when there are more years behind than ahead.

But all is not dour on Rosh Hashanah. There are the joys of honey with apples and honey with challah and honey in cake and honey-soaked taiglach (don't ask) all to auger in a sweet year. There are the brontosaurus-sized slabs of brisket simmering in sauce for hours on end. There are the sweet tzimmis (carrots with pineapple). There are the smells of fatty chicken soup with matza balls and meals that start with "Jewish sashimi," otherwise known as gefilte fish (fresh, not out of a jar, please!) with white-hot horseradish (wasabi is made of horseradish by the way) and more carrots. There are the dining rooms resplendent in fancy tablecloths, china, crystal and flowers.

There are the endless good wishes for a Shana Tova, a good year, and the time spent with family, the encounters with former classmates, friends and neighbors that maybe you haven't seen in a good while. There are the ladies in their new fall finery.

Above all, there is the sense that we made it through another year, which is not as easy as it seems -- and we're still here. There are multitudes of prayers on the High Holidays for just about everything under the sun: We pray for prosperity and livelihood. We pray for peace and security for our brethren in Israel. We pray for health for us and our loved ones. We pray for the souls of family members who came before us and who are no longer here but live on in our hearts and in our memories. Having our prayers answered involves a lot of confession of our inadequacies and contrition for our weaknesses, of which there are many as we are all only human. It involves teshuva (repentance), tefila (prayer) and tzedakah (charity) so that we're inscribed and then sealed in the Book of Life for yet one more year.

Happy New Year!

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