Paradox is often the coin of Jewish thought. Rosh Hashanah is a great example. It is the holiday that kicks off the 10 days of repentance, yet we don’t repent on Rosh Hashanah. No public confession; no litany of sins for which we are sorry to have committed. Instead, it is a combination existential judgment—who shall live and who shall die—and the celebration of creation, both the world and humanity. It is not easy to hold both of those extremes in our hearts, and minds, and souls at the same time.
The concept of “beginner’s mind” is important to Buddhist practice. The beginner’s world is wide open, characterized by wonder and astonishment as well as full of promise, whereas the expert’s world is pared down to what is known, verifiable and anticipated. Beginner’s mind isn’t only for novices. For a young child, it can be the natural way they encounter the world and experience. For the more mature person, it demands the capacity to set aside prejudices, biases, and even sound knowledge, and to observe with curiosity and without judgment. It isn’t easy. It also raises a second paradox: judgment and no-judgment held together at the same time.
“Rosh Hashanah mind” requires that we submit to the harsh light of existential judgment while simultaneously forming an image of a hopeful future unburdened by the constraints and losses of the past. Somehow we must both imagine the future as a fresh start and submit to the judgment no one can escape. Rabbi Jonathan Sachs teaches that we cannot repent, or face our past failures, without first securing the future. If we are too insecure, too broken, too fearful, we won’t be able to create a viable future.
Another educator and lecturer, Dina Coopersmith, teaches that because Rosh Hashanah celebrates the creation of the world and humanity, there is no past yet. “To the extent that we can remove ourselves from our past limitations,” she writes, “and reach for the stars, see ourselves as new beings involved in a new and ambitious plan for reaching our ultimate destiny, as individuals and as a nation, to that extent we have chosen life and have, in fact, signed ourselves into the Book of Life for the coming year.”
Beginner’s mind is our only option. We are all beginner’s on Rosh Hashanah engaging the world within and about us. Engaging it with innocence, curiosity and the wonderment of Adam and Eve at the very dawn of creation.
Robert Sherman is CEO of The Jewish Education Project. For more information regarding our CEO Succession Search, click here.