Rabbi Daniel Walker of Heaton Park Hebrew Congregation reveals why it is important to use Rosh Hashanah (2nd and 3rd October) as an opportunity for our young people to ask the big questions.
Young people’s lives seem more frenetic and high pressured than ever. With ever-increasing pressure to excel at school and the stresses always associated with adolescence exacerbated by social media, one could be forgiven for expecting today’s youth to be apathetic towards questions of philosophy, ethics and religion.
However, nothing could be further from the truth. Like generations of young people before them, today’s teenagers are passionate about the bigger questions of life and are more than happy to engage in discussion about them. Indeed, the greater exposure to information with which the information revolution has blessed them makes them better equipped than ever to engage with these ideas. Our young people care about the meaning of life. The question is whether their elders care as much as they do.
Rosh Hashanah, the anniversary of the creation of mankind, is the day when we contemplate G-d’s majesty and our place in His creation. Its dominant theme is our coronation of G‑d as king of the universe and our submission to His sovereignty. It is a day of introspection when we rededicate ourselves to His service and the fulfilment of His divine will.
Like all the festivals, Rosh Hashanah is a multi-generational experience. Young and old will attend shul, hear the shofar and partake of the traditional practices together. This should inspire contemplation of the question of continuity, and to ask ourselves if we are succeeding in passing on our values to the next generation.
This message is best encapsulated in the Torah reading of first day of Rosh Hashanah. Unlike Shabbat when we go through a cycle of readings that allows us to read the whole Torah in the course of a year, on festivals the Torah reading was chosen to reflect the message of the day. One would imagine then that the portion chosen would have been the first chapters of Genesis describing the creation of the world and Adam and Eve, or even the giving of the Torah and Ten Commandments, but this is not so. The Torah reading that was chosen to best reflect the message of Rosh Hashanah is the description of the birth and early childhood of Abraham and Sara’s son, Isaac. The message from this choice is clear: at the centre of Jewish life and our acceptance of our role in this world is the exhortation to pass on our values to future generations.
I think it is fair to say that Jewish people value education above almost everything else, but on Rosh Hashanah we remember that education doesn’t just mean giving our young people the tools they will need to prosper physically in this world but – and more importantly – it means giving them the tools they need to prosper spiritually in this world and the next. The best way we can do that is by encouraging our children and especially our youth and young adults to ask the big questions by engaging them in discussion about the meaning of life, their place in this world, and their relationship with G-d, Judaism and the Torah.
This year as we gather for our Rosh Hashanah meals let us make those questions the centre of our table talk. Let’s make sure that they understand that we know what is really important in life. Young people have so much to say, to share and to contribute to the future of Jewish life. Let us make sure we let them know we are interested in hearing it.