When I was a kid, I always wished I had a nickname: a cute tomboyish name, like Henri or Syd; or one with a funny story of a sibling who couldn’t say my name, or something idiosyncratic like “Bug” that started as an inside joke and then stuck. But it was always just regular old Lisa.
I’m not sure why I wanted these bonus names. Part of it might have been the idea that names have meanings, and more names would mean more layers of meaning. Or that I could have different names that suited different moods or situations.
Jewish holidays do get extra names. Rosh Hashanah has four other names! And, like nicknames, each of them has a backstory, conveying something different about what Rosh Hashanah is. Perhaps one of Rosh Hashanah’s four names is an aspect of the New Year that is personally meaningful to where you find yourself this year.
Rosh Hashanah is called Yom haDin, the Day of Judgment. According to the Talmud, it is on Rosh Hashanah that we pray to be written into The Book of Life. We are called to be accountable for our own choices, both when we are living up to our values and when we fall short. We aren’t meant to beat ourselves up! Instead, we are meant to say, “I know I can do better.”
Rosh HaShanah is also called Yom HaZikaron, the Day of Remembrance. Unlike the modern Israeli holiday also called Yom HaZikaron, this name for Rosh Hashanah is not about recalling specific people or historical events. Rather, we are meant to remind ourselves of our enduring Divine purpose; that we are intended to live purposefully and with intention. Yom HaZikaron is an opportunity to recommit ourselves to using our time on what’s important.
Yom Teruah, “Day of Blasting,” is how Rosh Hashanah is referred to in the Torah. It refers to the sound of the shofar, which was used both as a sign warning of danger as well as to call the community forth into battle. Either way, it conveys a sense of urgency. Yom Teruah is the day that the shofar blasts through our idle promises, the ones that end with “…starting tomorrow.” “NOT TOMORROW!” the shofar insists. “WAKE UP! This is your LIFE we’re talking about.” If you’re a procrastinator or daydreamer, Yom Teruah may be the urgent face of Rosh Hashanah that you need.
Finally, Rosh Hashanah is called Yom Harat Olam. It is often translated as “birthday of the world,” i.e. the anniversary of the day on which God created the world, as it were. It is a day that reminds us of the beauty of the created world, and our responsibilities and connections to it. We can also see it as Rabbi Gerson Cohen translates it: “Today is pregnant with eternity,” reassuring us that this moment is filled with both the heritage of the past and the possibility of what lies ahead.
So I never did pick up a cute nickname. But I figured out that even without one, I–like everyone else– still had the family stories, inside jokes, and varied dimensions that they represented to me. And just as those different stories and sides of ourselves show in different ways and different lights, so Rosh Hashanah can offer us many avenues for rediscovering, reconnecting, and recommitting to our best selves in the year to come.