Being Here // Rosh Hashanah: A day of judgment… and gratitude

Summer’s ebbing away has reminded me of one of my favorite poems, by Billy Collins, who was poet laureate of the United States from 2001 to 2003. Its title is “The Lanyard” and its subject is precisely that, one of those woven multicolored straps that summer campers and bored children have produced since time immemorial. Well, to be truthful, that’s not really its subject.

The narrator is transported back in time to “a workbench at a camp / by a deep Adirondack lake / learning how to braid long thin plastic strips / into a lanyard, a gift for my mother.”

Though he doesn’t know what one even does with a lanyard, the speaker, as a boy, persisted in his work and, the project completed, presented his creation to his mother, who, he notes, “gave me life… nursed me in many a sick room / lifted spoons of medicine to my lips / laid cold face-cloths on my forehead…”
“Here,” the poet says in his mother’s imagined voice, “are thousands of meals… clothing… a good education…”

“And here,” he, as a boy, says in response, “is your lanyard.”
“Here is a breathing body and a beating heart,
strong legs, bones and teeth,
and two clear eyes to read the world, she whispered,
And here, I said, is the lanyard I made at camp.”

The poem ends with the now-grown child’s admission that, at the time of his gift to his mother, he “was as sure as a boy could be / that this useless, worthless thing I wove / out of boredom would be enough to make us even.”

It might not seem like a Rosh Hashanah thought, but I think it is. Because, as we recite repeatedly over Yom Tov, hayom haras olam—“today [recalls] the conception of the world”—a reference to the creation of Adam Harishon.

Rosh Hashanah, thus, isn’t only the day of judgement, it’s a day of remembrance, of commemoration. Indeed, it is called Yom Hazikaron. Although the Rememberer indicated in that phrase is Hashem, we, too, remember, and commemorate, something: the fact that Hashem has allowed us, humanity, existence.

Caught up, as we so often are, in the challenges of life’s trials, tribulations and triumphs, it is incredibly easy for us to lose sight of the fact that, despite all the reasons we imagine earn our grumblings, our very being here is a gift of indescribable proportions.

Leave aside, even, the countless pleasures of life, its happy occasions and wonders, the physical and emotional blisses it presents us—the love and smiles of our family members and friends and, if we’re truly fortunate, our children and grandchildren.

Our very being here—with the power granted us to make meaningful choices, which is the essential characteristic of human life, is not something to take for granted.

Quite the opposite. It should inspire us to lift our voices in an expression of the ultimate hakaras hatov.

Even to celebrate our existences. Nechemiah told klal Yisrael in Eretz Yisrael that Rosh Hashanah is not to be marked as a sad day but, rather, one on which all the Jews should “go out, eat choice foods and drink sweet drinks, and send portions to whoever has nothing prepared… Do not be sad, for your rejoicing in Hashem is the source of your strength. (8:10)”

The joy of Rosh Hashanah is certainly in part because it and the days that follow immediately are days of teshuvah, the special gift given us to erase the parts of our past that shouldn’t have happened in the first place.

But there is that even more fundamental reason to be joyful: That Rosh Hashanah is the day of haras olam, the conception of the world—a reference to the creation of the first man. We all, his descendants, must acknowledge and rejoice over that fact.

So that, when we ask Hashem to kasveinu l’chaim, to inscribe us in the book of life for the coming year, we do well to remember how astoundingly gifted we already are, having been allotted chaim in the first place.

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