At first glance, the Jewish approach to the New Year seems to be quite depressing. Rather than indulging in festivities and fun, Jews wallow in prayers and penitence. The two-day Rosh Hashanah festival – which begins the evening of Sunday, September 25 – continues a prayer-a-thon that begins for many Jews a month earlier with regular “slichot,” or penitential prayers. With the New Year holiday, the Ten Days of Repentance begin, culminating with the Day of Atonement, the 25-hour Yom Kippur fast. Nevertheless, this year in particular, I appreciate this season of introspection and apology for providing the leaps of hope and healing we all need to navigate life’s challenges.
Two months ago, I fell while jogging and shattered my wrist. My surgeon had to insert two pins while reconstructing the bone. Burdened with a heavy cast, night after night, I had trouble falling asleep – or sleeping well. In the sensory deprivation of the night, without the distractions of daily life, even minor pains escalated into massive sleep disruptions.
Every morning, milliseconds before waking, I remember imagining that I was whole again, that my wrist had healed. Admittedly, the first few mornings this happened, this image made waking into my new reality discouraging. But as my wrist improved, that final fleeting dream-sliver reassured me that I would soon heal.
The Talmud teaches that sleep is one-sixtieth of death, while a dream is one-sixtieth of prophecy. Because one only dreams when one sleeps, the Talmud essentially links one of our darkest fears – of dying – with one of our most redemptive powers – to hope.
This nightly brush with an eternal sleep helps explain why religious Jews wash their hands ritually when they wake up, to purify themselves from even flirting with the Angel of Death. As the morning prayers begin, Jews welcome this return to life – much as penitent sinners welcome their return to a state of grace.
Immediately on waking, saying the “modeh ani” – I am grateful – prayer, I thank God for “graciously returning my soul within me.” And with the “Birkot Hashachar,” the dawn benedictions, I express gratitude for the daily reset. The prayers chart out the restoration of our human abilities, from distinguishing day and night, to being born free, to seeing, standing tall, and finding strength, even when we are weary. Each prayer emphasizes yet another daily miracle most take for granted, which helps empower us to do good in the world.
Reigniting the engine every morning is only the first step. Humans crave a direction, a vision, a mission. That’s what we get from our dreams, our nightly encounters with prophecy. And when we’re distressed, dreaming helps the healing. Psychologists teach that dreaming about unsettling encounters we experienced often helps us manage our pain through some creative reframing.
In one of the Bible’s powerful celebrations of convalescence, King Hezekiah blurs the Hebrew words for healing and dreaming.
The prophet Isaiah warns Hezekiah that he will soon die from a plague-like boil. Turning his face to the wall, the good king repents “with a whole heart.” Granting Hezekiah another 15 years, God vows to protect the king and his people. In praising God in Isaiah 38:16, the king says “ve’tachlimeni v’hachayeini.” The second word – from “chayim,” meaning life – thanks the Lord for restoring life. The first word, based on the root ch-l-m, blurs the Hebrew word “chalom” – dream – with the word “l’hachleem,” to heal.
Twenty-seven hundred years later, modern science confirms that hope helps heal. In “The Anatomy of Hope ,” Dr. Jerome Groopman reports, “Belief and expectation – the key elements of hope – can block pain by releasing the brain’s endorphins and enkephalins, mimicking the effects of morphine.” Hope, Groopman explains, “is the elevating feeling we experience when we see – in the mind’s eye – a path to a better future. Hope acknowledges the significant obstacles and deep pitfalls along that path.”
Groopman describes what I experienced every morning – and what Judaism’s choreographed repentance rituals offers, too. Envisioning that path to physical and psychic improvement requires an accounting for what was, an assessment of what is, and an appetite for what could be. There are no guarantees when healing or repenting, but both require a willingness to wake up refreshed.
Admittedly, it seems strange to link healing a bone broken by a hard fall with healing relationships broken by harsh words or hearts broken by life’s hardships. One is random; the others are often intentional. One is physical, the others psychological – and psychic. Moreover, when healing physically from random accidents you must avoid the finger-pointing, breast-beating process so central to repentance.
Still, putting the past aside, both healing and reconciling require dreaming. They only work when we succeed in looking past the present to look over the rainbow, anticipate a better future – and do whatever it takes to make our dreams come true. And that is why the Jewish season of healing is also the season of hoping. The repentance derby is also accompanied by warm family get-togethers, much communal singing, lots of eating – and that simplest of wishes, launching everybody’s leap of hope as the calendar resets: “Happy New Year.”
All Americans in our increasingly divided nation could learn from the Jews’ regularly scheduled healing-to-hoping trajectory. More and more of us, with God-sized-holes in our hearts, now approach politics with the level of certainty our grandparents had regarding religion. Many, both religious and secular, also echo the contempt our pious elders had for infidels who dared to disagree with them, too. But a functioning democracy needs citizens with a little more self-doubt and a lot more humility regarding the difficult balances so many political decisions involve. A healthy democracy needs citizens ready to take stock and be grateful for all the good they and their predecessors have accomplished. And a robust democracy needs citizens willing to reconsider, to apologize, to atone – and to keep taking a leap of hope that we, individually and collectively, by debating thoughtfully and listening to one another respectfully, will finally get it right and solve the pressing problems we all face together.
Recently designated one of Algemeiner’s J-100, one of the top 100 people “positively influencing Jewish life,” Gil Troy is the author of the newly-released The Zionist Ideas , an update and expansion of Arthur Hertzberg’s classic anthology The Zionist Idea, published by the Jewish Publication Society and a 2019 National Jewish Book Award Finalist.. A Distinguished Scholar of North American History at McGill University,and the author of nine books on American History, his book, Never Alone: Prison, Politics and My People, co-authored with Natan Sharansky was just published by PublicAffairs of Hachette.