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Rosh Hashanah Guide for the Perplexed, 2013 Ambassador (Ret.) Yoram Ettinger

May the New Year (5774 according to the Jewish calendar) be top heavy with truth, realism, tenacity and memory, but low on misrepresentation, wishful thinking, vacillation and forgetfulness.

1. The Jewish New Year (Rosh Hashanah- “the beginning of the year”) is compatible with the agricultural calendar. It commences with the planting of seeds and the first rain, which highlights the centrality of the soil in human life. The Hebrew word for soil is Adamah (אדמה), which starts with the first Hebrew letter, א, encompassing the Hebrew words for human-being (אדם) and blood – lifeline (דם). Rosh Hashanah is the only Jewish holiday which is celebrated – for two days in Israel and elsewhere – on the first day of the month.

2. The term Rosh Hashanah was conceived by Jewish sages, during the Second Temple, referring to the Biblical “Day of blowing the Shofar (horn)” and “the Day of commemorating the blowing of the Shofar” (Leviticus 23:23-25, Numbers 29:1-6). Commemoration – historical memory – is a prerequisite for national cohesion, survival, enhanced future and the avoidance of critical errors. The blowing of the Shofar symbolizes faith in God, the annual judgment day, soul-searching and the constant drive – not only Jewish, but universal – to improve human conduct.

3. Rosh Hashanah and the Shofar (the ritual ram’s horn) symbolize and commemorate:

*Reaffirmation of faith in God as the Supreme King and Judge;
*The first human-being, Adam, was created on Rosh Hashanah, the sixth day of Creation, the first day of the Jewish month of Tishrei;
*The opening of Noah’s Ark following the flood;
*The almost-sacrifice of Isaac (thou shall not sacrifice human beings!) and the Covenant of the Jewish People with God;
*The three Jewish Patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and the Prophet Samuel (the latter inspired Thomas Paine, the author of “Common Sense,” the cement of the American Revolution), were conceived/born during the month of Tishrei, which is called “The Month of the Strong Ones; ”
*The release of Joseph from an Egyptian jail;
*Mt. Sinai, the Ten Commandments and the Torah;
*The commitment to liberty. The blowing of the Shofar introduced the Jubilee Year, “Yovel” (יובל) in Hebrew, which is a synonym for Shofar. The blowing of the Shofar represents deliverance from spiritual and physical slavery and inspired the anti-slavery Abolitionist movement in the USA;
*The reconstruction of the 2nd Temple and the destruction of both Temples;
*The ingathering (Aliya) of Jews to the Jewish Homeland, the Land of Israel;
*The cycle of nature – seed planting season and the equality of day and night;
*Optimism in the face of daily adversity – genuine repentance and rectifying behavior warrants forgiveness;
*The fallibility of all human-beings, starting with Adam and including the most pious, even Moses;
*Humility as an effective means to minimize wrong-doing;
*The “Ten Days of Awe” (repentance) are initiated on Rosh Hashanah and sealed on Yom Kippur.

4. Rosh Hashanah – unlike all other Jewish holidays – is a universal (stock-taking, renewal and hopeful) holiday. “Rosh” (ראש) translates from Hebrew as “beginning,” “first,” “head,” “chief.” The Hebrew letters of Rosh constitute the root of the Hebrew word for Genesis, “Bereshit” (בראשית), which is the first word in the Bible. Just like the Creation, so should the New Year and our own actions, be a thoughtful, long-term – not a hasty – process. Rosh Hashanah is celebrated at the beginning of the Jewish month of Tishrei, which means beginning/Genesis in ancient Acadian. The Hebrew spelling of Tishrei (תשרי) is included in the spelling of Genesis (בראשית). Rosh Hashanah is referred to as “Ha’rat Olam” (the pregnancy of the world), and its prayers highlight motherhood, optimism and the pregnancies of Sarah, Rachel and Hanna, who gave birth to Isaac, Joseph, Benjamin and Samuel respectively. Sarah,שרה , and Hanna,חנה , (the root of the Hebrew words Pardon, Amnesty and Merciful, חנינה), were two of the seven Jewish Prophetesses: Sarah, Miriam, Hanna, Deborah, Huldah, Abigail and Esther. Hanna’s prayer (which facilitated her pregnancy) has become a role-model for God-heeded prayers. Noah – who led the rebirth of humanity/world – also features in Rosh Hashanah prayers.

5. The three pillars of Rosh Hashanah are Repentance (returning to good deeds – תשובה – in Hebrew), Prayer and Charity (doing justice – צדקה – in Hebrew).

6. The Hebrew word for atonement/repentance is Te’shuvah (תשובה), which also means “return” to core morality and values and to the Land of Israel. On Rosh Hashanah, one is expected to plan a “spiritual/behavioral budget” for the entire year. The three Hebrew words, Teshuvah (Repentance/Atonement, תשובה), Shivah (Spiritual and Physical Return, שיבה) and Shabbat (Creation completed on שבת) emerge from the same Hebrew root. They constitute a triangular foundation, whose strength depends upon the depth of education and commemoration. According to King Solomon, “The triangular cord cannot be broken.”

7. The Shofar (ritual ram’s horn) is blown on Rosh Hashanah as a wake-up call, a break away from the professional, social and political mundane, in order to recommit oneself to basic values and repairing one’s order of priorities. Shofar (שופר) is a derivative of the Hebrew word for enhancement/improvement (שפור). Blowing the Shofar symbolizes a new beginning. The new beginning of the Jewish people – at Mount Sinai – was accompanied by the sound of the Shofar.

8. The Shofar should be humble (bent and not decorated), natural and unassuming, just like Mt. Sinai (which is not the highest mountain in Sinai) and humility, which is the foundation of a positive character, in general, and leadership, in particular.

9. The Shofar is the epitome of peace-through-strength. It is made from the horn of a ram, which is a peaceful animal equipped with strong horns to fend off predators. The numerical value of the Hebrew word, “ram” (איל), is 41, equal to the value of “mother” (אם), who strongly protects her children.

10. While the blowing of the Shofar is a major virtue, listening to the Shofar is at least as important a virtue. The Hebrew root of “listening,” האזנה, is Ozen, ear (אוזן), which contains the balancing mechanism in our body (אזון). Ozen is also the root for “Scale” (מאזניים) and “Balance,” which is the zodiac sign of the month of Tishrei. Both Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur (when people balance their good deeds vs. bad deeds) are observed during the month of Tishrei.

11. The three ways of blowing the Shofar express human-being’s inner constant values (Te’kiyah), the tenacious human marathon through success and failure (She’va’rim), and the determined pursuit of faith-driven long-term vision (Troo’ah).

12. The three series of blowing the Shofar represent the faith of mankind in God (Malkhooyot), the centrality of history/memory/roots and God’s Covenant with the Jewish People (Zichronot) and repentance/enhancement (Shofarot).

13. The three different soundings of the Shofar represent the three Patriarchs (Abraham – tenacity, fighting capabilities and mercy, Isaac – benevolence, Jacob – truth), the three parts of the Bible and the three types of human beings (pious, evil and mediocre), all of whom are worthy of renewal.

14. Rosh Hashanah services include 101 soundings of the Shofar. It is the numerical value of the Hebrew spelling of Michael, the Guardian Angel, which was one of the names of Moses.

15. The pomegranate – one of the seven species that bless the Land of Israel – is featured during Rosh Hashanah: “May you be credited with as many rewards as the seeds of the pomegranate.” The pomegranate ripens in time for Rosh Hashanah and contains – genetically – 613 seeds, which is the number of Jewish statues/laws. The pomegranate was employed as an ornament of the Holy Arc, the holy Menorah (candelabrum), the coat of the High Priest and the Torah Scrolls. The first two letters of the Hebrew word for pomegranate (רמון), Rimon – which is known for its crown – mean sublime (Ram, רמ). The pomegranate (skin and seeds) is a very healthy fruit: high in iron, anti-oxidants, anti-cancer, it decreases blood pressure and enhances the quality of blood and the cardiac and digestion systems. Rimon is a Hebrew metaphor for a wise person: “wholesome like a pomegranate.”

16. Honey is included in Rosh Hashanah meals in order to sweeten the coming year. The bee is the only insect which produces essential food. It is a community-oriented, constructive and a diligent creature. The Hebrew spelling of bee (דבורה) is identical to “the word of God” (דבור-ה’), and Deborah ( (דבורהwas one of the seven Jewish prophetesses.

17. Shofar Blowing Commemoration Day (Leviticus 23) is one of the names of Rosh Hashanah. One can avoid – rather than repeat – past mistakes by learning from history. The more one remembers, the deeper are the roots and the greater is one’s stability and one’s capability to withstand storms of pressure and temptation. The more stable/calculated/moral the beginning of the year (Rosh Hashanah), the more constructive will be the rest of the year.

May the New Year (5774 according to the Jewish calendar) be top heavy with truth, realism, tenacity and memory, but low on misrepresentation, wishful thinking, vacillation and forgetfulness.

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Miley Cyrus, take note: Acting out lewdly at Sunday’s MTV Video Music Awards might have garnered some stinging public criticism for the former Disney child star. But consider the fate of Hyon Song Wol in Pyongyang.

According to South Korea’s Chosun Ilbo newspaper, Hyon, a popular North Korean singer, was arrested August 17 and executed three days later, along with a dozen members of her orchestra. The charge was that she had made a sex tape, later released in China, with another musician, and, incongruously, that they also had Bibles in their possession. “‘They were executed with machine guns while the key members of [their bands] as well as the families of the victims looked on,'” the Chosun reports, citing a source. The families of the executed were then sent to prison camps.

Hyon was also the ex-girlfriend of “Great Successor” Kim Jong Un, the North’s 29 year-old dictator. The Chosun reports that the two had been an item a decade ago but were ordered to break it off by Kim’s late father, Kim Jong Il. The younger Kim then married Ri Sol Ju, a former bandmate of Hyon, who married a soldier.

This being North Korea, it’s hard to tell if the executions are a case of Kim’s vindictiveness as an ex-boyfriend, Ri’s jealousy as a wife, or something else. The executions coincide with the reported purging of Kim Ok, Kim Jong Il’s last wife and Kim Jong Un’s stepmother. That would be in keeping with Kim Jong Un’s broader effort to purge his father’s military and political cronies as he consolidates his power.

The manic cruelty of the North Korean regime, reaching from the bottom of society to its upper echelons, may sometimes seem like a subject best suited for parody. But it was no joke for Hyon, her fellow musicians or their families. That’s something for South Korea, the Obama Administration and the rest of the civilized world to remember when they seek the next rapprochement with the Kims.

A version of this article appeared August 30, 2013, on page A12 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: Breaking Up Badly in Pyongyang.

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