Rosh Hashana is Not Groundhog’s Day

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I have two unique talents. I can close my eyes and fall asleep within 10 seconds, and once asleep, I can sleep through a tornado. These abilities are heaven-sent. Because of my busy schedule, I sleep very little at night. I am able to keep going by sleeping on the train to and from work. Not a minute is wasted, and the moment I settle down in my comfortable seat, I am out like a light.

Having traveled the train for many years, my reputation is well known. People who know me are kind enough not to sit next to me on the train and converse, so as not to rob me of my precious respite. In addition, if I fail to wake up at my destination, kind-hearted people usually arouse me from my deep slumber. Nonetheless, this system is not foolproof. On occasion, I have missed my stop in Edison and traveled as far as Princeton. In one unfortunate trip, I woke up and found myself on a deserted train in Sunnyside Yard in Queens, New York (which is where trains sleep when their day is over).

By far, my most interesting episode occurred to me on the PATH Train which connects Newark and the Wall Street area. The ride from one stop to the other is exactly 22 minutes. On that particular day, I took my seat in Newark, immediately fell asleep and woke up 45 minutes later. I looked out the window and to my chagrin, discovered that we were still in the Newark station. The train was obviously disabled and had not moved an inch. When I turned to the man next to me and inquired, “What’s wrong with the train?”, he grunted , “Huh?” In shock, I realized that the train had arrived in Manhattan and returned to Newark, while I slept through the entire round trip. The train ride was completely wasted, and I was now late for work.

In reality, I am not the only one who has slept through a round-trip. Most of us do it all the time. The Rambam (Hilchos Teshuva 3:4) offers a well-known explanation for the mitzvah of blowing shofar on Rosh Hashana. The shofar beckons to man, “Uru yishainim mishinaschem – awaken you who slumber, “ailu hashokchim ho-emes bihavlei hazman”, who forget the truth by engaging in the vanities of time.” The shofar is a wake-up call for those who have dozed off during the course of the year and wasted their lives.

Waking up from the clarion call of the shofar is wonderful, but the real question is what happens after the Days of Awe have passed? Do we stay awake or do we fall right back asleep?

For the Jew, time flows in a circle and each year we travel the same spiritual road as the year before. Rosh Hashana, the beginning of the new year, is but the first stop in the religious track of the Jew. The circle of time is meaningful only when it spirals upward; when each new stop forms the basis for subsequent spiritual ascent. The shofar may indeed wake us on Rosh Hashana, but if we push the snooze-button the rest of the year, the shofar is reduced to a yearly déjà vu, and our journey through life brings us no closer to our final destination than my round-trip ride from the Newark station. Each year we are momentarily aroused, but the following year we find ourselves at the very same stop as Rosh Hashana twelve months ago.

The story is told of a religious man who went to visit his doctor. As he removed his shirt for the examination, the doctor noticed that his patient was wearing a tiny pair of tzitzis. When the doctor expressed surprise, the man explained that his tzitzis were small because, “My mother gave me that pair when I was a small boy and I have worn it ever since!”

The greatness of man lies in his capacity to renew himself. Life provides almost infinite opportunities to grow through mitzvah observance. But if we are satisfied with the spiritual level of our childhood and continue to wear the same size tzizis as when we were kids, we will have forfeited the very reason for human existence.

How then do we insure that Rosh Hashanah is the beginning and not the end of our spiritual journey each year? There is only one way to embark on a path of change, and that is by making concrete resolutions for the months ahead. There are so many possible directions: increased Torah study, midos development, concentration during tefillah, numerous chesed opportunities, as well as many other avenues for spiritual growth. It does not matter if your area of commitment seems small: But do something! Otherwise, no matter how inspired we are when we hear the shofar blast, we remain the same.

The shofar may be a wakeup call, but let’s not be like the groundhog that crawls out of his burrow for a few moments, checks his shadow and then retreats back into hibernation for the duration of the winter.

Sleeping on a train may be a refreshing way to start the day, but sleeping through life is not the way to go.

Rabbi Yakov Luban served as Senior Rabbinic Coordinator in the OU Kashrus Department from 1984 until the end of 2023. Concurrently, he was the rabbi of Congregation Ohr Torah in Edison, New Jersey. In 2024, Rabbi Luban retired from both positions and resides in Highland Park, New Jersey.