SALT LAKE CITY — As conflict looms ominously in the Middle East, Jews around the world begin their High Holy Day observances of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur with prayers for "a good year and a sweet year, a year of goodness and peace."
Those were the words of Rabbi Benny Zippel of Chabad Lubavitch of Utah as he conducted evening services Wednesday, welcoming Rosh Hashanah, traditionally considered the start of the new Jewish year and the first of the Jewish High Holy Days.
"5774 is going to be the best year yet," Rabbi Zippel told more than 100 worshippers, referring to the new year according to the Jewish calendar, and he offered prayers for a new year filled with "peace, harmony and tranquility" for the members of his congregation as well as for "our brethren in Israel."
All around the world similar Rosh Hashanah prayers are being offered this week, as Jews and those from other faith groups are mindful of the impending threat of military action against Syria following the alleged use of chemical weapons by the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in a civil war there.
For example, a Jewish group called J Street, which identifies itself as "pro-Israel, pro-peace," urged rabbis to use their Rosh Hashanah sermons "to build a connection between the tones of these important days of spiritual observance" and peace efforts in the Middle East. Even Pope Francis, during a meeting with World Jewish Congress President Ronald S. Lauder, wished Jews "shana tova" (happy New Year) and expressed his feeling that "world leaders must do everything to avoid war."
But there were no overtly political overtones to Rabbi Zippel's Rosh Hashanah message in Salt Lake City. Instead, he focused on his congregation and on getting their "minds, souls and hearts in the right place" at what he called "the head of the new year."
"This is the most central day of the Jewish calendar," the rabbi said during a recent interview. "It is a good time for introspection and for serious stock-taking about our relationship with God. Are we living a godly life? Are we fulfilling the mandate God gave to Adam to be the choice creature who reflects godliness?"
Rosh Hashanah, therefore, is not about making New Year's resolutions, he said. Rather, "it is about reprioritizing our lives."
"We have to take a serious look at what is crucial to us," Rabbi Zippel said, "and how we fare in our relationship with God."
Following the service, the rabbi led his congregation into another room to partake of a traditional Rosh Hashanah meal. The tables were decorated with fish heads (to represent Rosh Hashanah's standing as "the head of the year") and dishes of honey (to represent the desire for a sweet New Year). The menu included gefilte fish (a poached mixture of ground boned fish), challah (braided bread loaves), tzimmes (a sweet stew made of carrots, dried fruits and root vegetables), chicken, honey cake and, of course, apples dipped in honey.
"This is a day of sweetness," Rabbi Zippel said. "We hope and pray for a sweet New Year."
Thursday Rosh Hashanah observances at Chabad Lubavitch included morning and evening worship services; Tashlich services, during which members of the congregation meet at a nearby stream that has been populated with fish and symbolically cast their sins into the water, thus starting the new year with a clean slate; and the ceremonial sounding of the shofar, a hollowed out ram's horn that is, in the rabbi's words, "a sacred object that encompasses the past, present and future of Jewish history."
"The shofar is not a musical instrument," Rabbi Zippel said. "It is a religious tool, and its sound is a call to repentance."
The sounding of the shofar on the first day of Rosh Hashanah signals the beginning of what is traditionally known as "10 days of repentance" leading up to Yom Kippur (Sept. 13), the holiest of all Jewish Holy Days.
But Rabbi Zippel doesn't like the "10 days of repentance" tradition.
"I think it implies that we're all a bunch of sinners," he said. Instead, he prefers the interpretation of the Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson, one of the founding fathers of the Lubavitch movement of Judaism, who referred to them as "the 10 days of return."
"I like that," Rabbi Zippel said. "It is a return to our original self, a return to the perfection of our soul to the way it was placed by God when we were born. The 10 days of return begin on Rosh Hashanah, and the 10th day is Yom Kippur, the day of Atonement, the day all sins are forgiven."
Although Yom Kippur falls this year on Friday the 13th, the rabbi urged his congregation to take no notice of that.
"This is a very serious time of reflection, a very serious time of introspection, a very significant and auspicious time," he said during a recent interview. "This is about returning. God wants us to simply come home. That's where each and every one of us belongs."
One of the critical elements of Yom Kippur is a day of fasting and total focus on the solemnity of the day.
"There is no work, no eating, no drinking on this day," Rabbi Zippel said. "We refrain from any engagement with the physical world and entirely rededicate ourselves to our spiritual identity. Through this our souls are cleansed entirely."
The Atonement of Yom Kippur is automatic, the rabbi said, and "is granted to us for transgressions between man and God." But for transgressions between man and man, it's another story.
"Yom Kippur doesn't cover interpersonal difficulties," he said, smiling. "That would be too easy. So we are urged to make amends within our failed relationships with family, friends and business associates. This is a time of year to reach out to your fellow person and say, 'Let's work it out,' or, 'I am sorry.' If we want God to forgive us for our shortcomings, we need to demonstrate that by letting go of our hurt feelings and forgive others."
Such forgiveness, Rabbi Zippel said, both between man and God as well as man and man, is critical to making 5774 "a good year and a sweet year, a year of goodness and peace."