The Torah never mentions Rosh Hashanah, saying only that the first day of the seventh month is a Remembrance Day, the day when the shofar is blown. It is rabbinic tradition that makes the first day of the month of Tishri the Anniversary of the Creation of the World, or even more precisely, the creation of humans, linking the idea of remembrance to that of creation.
This connection is what will give Rosh Hashanah its particular character, opening the period of Yamim Noraim, or High Holidays, extending from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur, from the anniversary of the creation to judgment. The “remembering” aspect of these holidays is important because our personal files are the ones that are opened. We are to think about our actions of the past year and take responsibility for the bad as well as the good. Yom Kippur is the day of the verdict, but forgiveness is always possible.
It is interesting that the rabbis did not focus on creation as an historical event, but more as a symbolic narrative. Indeed, the first verse of the Torah raises a problem when it states: “In the beginning G-d cre-ated…” Commentators and scholars have asked, “In the beginning of what? Why?” When we consider the world and how things (economy, security, politics, etc) are going that we do not understand.
The Midrash tells us about the prayer of a rabbi: “Ruler of the Universe, I may scream, I may sound blasphemous because the words I am about to say are difficult, but I cannot help it. The story of creation reminds me of an emperor who was bored and who, in order to have some fun, built an arena in which gladiators were to fight. When one gladiator dominated the other, the emperor gestured with a ‘thumbs up’ or ‘thumbs down,’ always ending the fight. But you, Ruler of the Universe, you never stop the fight!”
The biblical commentators become bolder and bolder as they try to explain the meaning of the first words of the Tanakh, and some of them eventually concluded that the word “reshit” (like in “be-reshit”- “in the beginning”) does not mean “beginning” but “Torah” because G-d used the Torah as a blueprint to create the world. Thus, we can infer that there is a program, a project and future for mankind.
Moreover, for the Torah reading on Rosh Hashanah, we do not read the story of creation, which would be very logical, but rather, the story of Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac, the Akedah, which may signify the absolute rejection of the practice of human sacrifice, the total rejection of killing in G-d’s name.
It is also important to note that a literal reading of Torah is foreign to Judaism. By opening the year with the anniversary of creation, the rabbis wanted to emphasize the concept of a creator and, at the same time, to give some meaning to our existence. The biblical story is a way of giving meaning, but it makes no historical claims. In addition there are inconsistencies in the text. Rashi opens his commentary by quoting for us his father’s and master’s words, “It was not necessary to begin the Torah [here] but with Exodus 12:2, since this is the first mitzvah: “This month (Nissan) shall be unto you the beginning of the months.”
During the month of Nissan we celebrate the exodus, the liberation from Egypt. The stories of Genesis present us with moral lessons. G-d created the primordial human, the parent from whom all mankind is descended. We need to reconsider the consequences and the possibilities that this statement opens for us. Rosh Hashanah, as the day when judgment begins, the day when the books of our lives are opened and signed, this day of Rosh Hashanah raises the concept of human responsibility. We are partners with G-d in the work of creation. Humans can build or destroy, create gaps or build bridges, shed light or create darkness, bring closer or push further away. But ultimately, there is always a choice.
Today, is there reason for optimism when we consider the state of the world?
Despite the crises, the atrocities and barbarities that have occurred, there are always rays of hope: During the 1940s, the Jewish people seemed to be at the bottom of the abyss. The future was grim, and yet the State of Israel was born. Despite all the violence, wars and campaigns, Israel has progressed in many fronts … socially, scientifically and economically.
In the Diaspora, despite numerous obstacles, we see strong and flourishing communities. In Europe we can see miracles too. Incredibly, Judaism has experienced a renewal in Germany where once again there are synagogues, communities centers and rabbinical seminaries. Jews are beginning to practice their religion again in many countries in Eastern Europe, too.
This month, peace talks between Palestinians and Israelis will resume. Peace still seems far away, if not impossible. The problems are immense, but when you look carefully, despite the misunderstandings and preconceptions, the horizon lights up. Bridges, though fragile, are being built. There may be many choices, but the best would be to meet as brethren of Abraham.
This is the hopeful prayer and the ineradicable dream…that Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur bring.