Rosh Hashanah is first referred to in our texts as Yom HaZikaron – the Day of Remembrance. It is not until the Talmud that the idea of the “new year” is even associated with the day, and liturgically speaking, many of our prayers describe Rosh Hashanah as one of memory – a reflection on the past rather than an aspiration for the future.  

Is it strange that we view our new year through the lens of the past rather than seeing it as a blank slate and a fresh start — or is it actually the most Jewish lens possible? Memory is the foundation of Jewish identity, so much so that we don’t even have a Hebrew word for history. History is objective, a subject to be studied and examined. Memory is personal, to be lived and re-lived, generation after generation.  

Rabbi Emily Hyatt's USC Hillel Birthright Israel group

This is the beauty, importance, and lesson of Birthright Israel – that the legacy of the Jewish people is personal. I had the honor of leading my second Birthright Israel trip in 2014 when I was working as the Rabbinic Intern for the Hillel at the University of Southern California. While on the trip, I wrote a Friday night talk about the Torah Portion, Nasso, from the Book of Numbers, in which the Israelites are commanded to take a census, a commandment which is phrased “lift up their heads” rather than the expected “count the people.” It’s a strange way to give the instruction, but our sages teach us that it is about seeing the individual – and what the individual sees.   

It occurred to me then, as I was counting (for the tenth time that hour) my 45 students as they got off the bus (yet again), that indeed, they were lifting their heads. As they climbed down the stairs of that bus, I saw each of their faces as they reached the pavement and lifted their faces. I watched them as they watched the beauty of the land of Israel come into focus. And I knew the truth of the instructions – we must lift our heads to be counted. In fact, it is only when we lift our heads that we are ready to be counted at all. Each of those students had to see Israel for themselves. Each had to walk the streets with their own feet, had to cry their own tears at the Wall, had to taste their own falafel, had to feel the heartbeat of their own history beating before them.  

Emily Hyatt's Birthright Israel group hiking in Ein Gedi

Because we are a people of memory – and so when the new year comes and we examine our lives, repent for our mistakes, ask for forgiveness and look toward a better future. We are not a people who wipe the slate clean, individually or collectively, because a clean slate has no lessons to learn, no legacy to inherit, no hopes or dreams to realize.  Memory is messy, layered, complicated – but we are the guardians of what we keep, and we sift through to find the beauty, the lessons and the hope. We are the builders of our modern world. We take the successes and failures of the past and forge stronger foundations. We are the artists who mold our collection of experiences into beautiful possibilities.  

So, new year, blank slate? No thank you. We’ve each lived a thousand rich lives for the express purpose of bringing our memories with us into this new year. With our heads lifted and our eyes clear, we see the centuries of generations past, and we’ve walked in their footsteps. We see the layers of history carved into the streets of our homeland – and we see the 750,000 Birthright Israel alumni who have walked those streets. Together, we will bring our memories into this new year as reminders of where we come from, as motivation to be better than we were last year and as lessons to teach each other as we build this world together.

I wish you all a sweet, messy, hopeful and beautiful new year.  

Every Dollar Counts! Donate today and help send a young Jewish adult ona life-changing trip to claim their birthright.
Every Dollar Counts! Donate today and help send a young Jewish adult ona life-changing trip to claim their birthright.