June 16, 2024
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Reaching Out in a Pandemic World: A Rosh Hashanah Message

Rosh Hashanah And Creation

There is a deep connection between the holiday of Rosh Hashanah and the story of the creation of the world. This was highlighted by our rabbis several thousand years ago and is extremely relevant to us in the season of Yomim Noraim.

The Talmud in Rosh Hashanah describes a dispute between two Sages about the date of creation. Rabbi Eliezer insists that God created the world in the month of Tishrei, while Rabbi Yehoshua contends that the world was created in the month of Nisan.

This argument between Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Yehoshua over the month of creation is not merely an academic one. Each rabbi assumed that Rosh Hashanah—the Jewish New Year—should be celebrated on the anniversary of the creation of the world and human beings. A determination needed to be made for practical purposes. Should Rosh Hashanah, the holiday that celebrates creation, be set in the spring (Nisan) or in the fall (Tishrei)?

Rabbi Yehoshua’s position that the Jewish New Year should be celebrated in Nisan finds its roots in the Torah: The 12th chapter of Sefer Shemot (12:2) calls Nisan the first month of the year. Immediately before the Israelites leave Egypt, God commands, “This month is for you the head of the months; it is for you the first month of the year!”

It is less clear how Rabbi Eliezer derives his position, as there is no reference in the Torah to a Jewish New Year in Tishrei. What we celebrate today as Rosh Hashanah is described in the Torah (Vayikra 23:24-25) as a zichron teruah—a holy day commemorated with long blasts of the shofar—that is to be observed on the first day of the seventh month (Tishrei).

The 13th-century commentator Ramban attempted to harmonize the positions of Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Yehoshua. The Jewish calendar, he claimed, really has two beginnings. The year begins in Tishrei, when the world was created, but the months are counted from Nisan, when the nation of Israel was born. Similarly, the holiday of Rosh Hashanah is a universal one while Passover celebrates the birth of the nation of Israel. This is the significance of the words in Shemot 12:2, “This month is for you the head of the months…” Nisan is not the beginning of the year for the whole world, but it is the first month for you—for the people of Israel—because it was then that Israel became a free and independent nation.

Our rabbis ultimately accepted the opinion of Rabbi Eliezer that the world was created in Tishrei. This idea is mentioned many times in our prayer service on Rosh Hashanah. Every time we hear the sound of the shofar during Musaf, we respond with the words: HaYom harat olam—on this day the world was created. Setting Rosh Hashanah in the month of Tishrei emphasizes that it is a day of repentance and judgment for every person. As the Mishnah in Rosh Hashanah 1:2 states: “On Rosh Hashanah all the earth’s inhabitants pass before God like a flock of sheep.” On the anniversary of creation, every human being gets a moment with God to determine if he or she will merit another year.

What lessons can we learn from the fact that Judaism recognizes two beginnings—Rosh Hashanah in Tishrei, commemorating humankind’s creation, and the month of Nisan, commemorating the birth of the nation of Israel? The existence of two beginnings of time in the Jewish calendar teaches us that in Judaism national identity and individual humanity are important values that go hand in hand. As Jews, we are called upon to blend a religious life with a life in the wider world. This presents each of us with both opportunity and challenge. As Rabbi Joseph Dov Soloveitchik eloquently described: “What do we say to the Jew from America? You are a stranger and a resident. You can participate fully in all political, cultural and economic activities. You may feel yourself a resident at the university, in the laboratory, in financial circles, in the press, in Congress—but this is not all. You possess a world that is entirely your own, a world of sanctity and chesed (lovingkindness), of Torah, of the Shabbat and of education.”


Lessons in a Pandemic World

The challenges of this past year reminded all of us that we are part of a collective humanity. A pandemic does not distinguish between Jews and non-Jews, nationalities, races and ethnicities. The year 5781 made the importance of universal responsibility stark and real. If there was ever a year that required us to see more broadly and feel more deeply, it was 5781. But with this challenge there also came opportunity. In addition to sharing and caring among individuals, we can all take pride in the efficacious medical model that the State of Israel demonstrated in reaching out to its citizens and sharing its technology with the rest of the world.

Rosh Hashanah is a moment of introspection and resolution for every Jew. It is a time to reflect on the year that has passed and to set priorities for the future. If so, as we make our New Year resolutions, each of us must consider our dual role—as human beings and as Jews. We must seek to harmonize our universal destiny as part of God’s creation with our unique identity as God’s chosen nation. In the immemorial words of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, zt”l, who was taken from us in 5781: “Genesis begins…with a description of the universal condition of humankind. Only in the 12th chapter is there a call to an individual, Abraham, to leave his land, family and father’s house and lead a life of righteousness through which ‘all the families of the earth shall be blessed.’ ”

There is indeed a deep connection between Rosh Hashanah and the creation of the world that must resonate with every Jew. As we celebrate the anniversary of creation, we must challenge ourselves to be the best human beings and the best Jews we can possibly be.

Shanah tovah!

Dean Rachel Friedman is the founder and dean of Lamdeinu, the center for adult Torah learning in Teaneck. Please visit lamdeinu.org for our full High Holiday schedule.

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