This is the time of year for review, reflection, repentance. For practicing Jews, that happens on a personal level during the lengthy and, one hopes, meaningful recitation of prayers that weave through Rosh Hashanah and conclude with Yom Kippur’s demanding fast. But there’s another level upon which this yearly assessment can take place: That of the community, and the world. It’s a useful exercise to examine both the excruciatingly slow pace of human change and the occasional progress that emerges from that hard slog.

There is unfortunately plenty of evidence for the ugly status quo. Last year on Erev Rosh Hashanah, in return for the release of 20 Palestinian prisoners, Israel received a video of Gilad Shalit, the soldier held prisoner by Hamas. Shalit’s young, mournful face had by then become ubiquitous in Israel and throughout the Jewish world as his family and supporters campaigned relentlessly for his freedom. He had been held against all international and human rights conventions since June 2006.

On this Rosh Hashanah, Shalit is still not free.

Last year on Erev Rosh Hashanah, tens of thousands of protesters marched through the heart of Tehran and other Iranian cities. The occasion was the oddly timed annual rally for “Jerusalem Day,” during which President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad spewed forth invective against Israel, calling the Holocaust a “lie,” a new low, even for him. But Ahmadinejad’s speech was overshadowed by the massive street rallies, which supporters hoped would reinvigorate the Iranian opposition movement that had blossomed since the disputed presidential elections that June.

On this Rosh Hashanah, the streets of Iran are quiet and Ahmadinejad remains in charge. And while tougher Western sanctions have been enacted, Iran’s nuclear potential remains a threat to the U.S., Israel and, indeed, the world.

Last year on Erev Rosh Hashanah, President Obama sat down for television interviews to try and deflect charges that race played a role in the torrent of criticism directed at him and his administration. As reported in The New York Times: “Mr. Obama, the nation’s first black president, said ‘race is such a volatile issue in this society’ that he conceded it had become difficult for people to tell whether it was simply a backdrop of the current political discussion or ‘a predominant factor.’”

Sound sadly familiar? Arguably, racial attacks on the president have only grown in the last year, compounded by the deplorable anti-Muslim sentiment expressed in connection with the planned Islamic cultural center in Lower Manhattan.

But Obama’s remarks in 2009 were in direct reference to attacks targeted at his attempts to reform health care in America — a monumental task that he finally achieved six months later. And while the legislation enacted by Congress is far from perfect, and is still being threatened by recalcitrant Republicans, the reforms represent a gigantic step forward in ensuring access to a basic right for almost all Americans.

This Rosh Hashanah, there is hope for a healthier America.

Last year on Erev Rosh Hashanah, George Mitchell, the White House’s Middle East envoy, returned home after a fruitless week of shuttle diplomacy that resulted in no agreement on talks between Israel and the Palestinians. Mitchell’s failure was seen as a sign that Obama’s ambitious goal of bringing Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas together continued to elude him.

This year, a week before Rosh Hashanah, the three leaders met amid very cautious hope that the strategic advantages of resolving their differences will outweigh the cost and fears of compromise. Obama’s goal remains ambitious, and elusive, but he deserves credit and thanks for his persistence.

The review, reflection and repentance expected during these holy days are predicated on the belief that human behavior can improve, both individually and collectively. It always seems to be the worst of times, doesn’t it? Rosh Hashanah offers the gift — the opportunity, really — of renewal.

L’shana tova.

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