Thursday, September 6, 2007

Does Rosh Hashanah Need to Happen Now?

Holidays inevitably conjure up childhood memories. The sights, smells and sounds are implanted in our consciousness. Coming home from school Rosh Hashanah time, we kids were greeted by a foreign sound emanating from the upstairs. Not shofar blowing but rather the rhythmic single finger typing of Rosh Hashanah sermons from a large-type orator’s typewriter. Climbing the stairs toward father’s study brought the typing closer and louder. It is the writing of a sermon; the thoughts, the words, the passion pouring forth from mind and heart, the energy traveling through fingers onto the keys, creating that hollow rhythmic beating against the hard stock 5x7 note cards, which later appear on the pulpit flashing before hundreds of congregants. That typing could bring, in a Pavlovian way, moods of seriousness, hushedness - inducing thoughts of synagogue and prayer.
Rosh Hashanah is different for each of us. It is the Jewish kind of a New Year yes, but, I never knew there was any other kind of New Year. I first heard of the parties, blow outs, and the champagne of December 31 way past childhood. Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year is all I know of new years. As a rabbi’s daughter, rabbi’s wife, mother, and teacher, Rosh Hashanah naturally takes on many nuances. There is the tension of the year’s most intense synagogue experience, there are the preparations in the home, the mad dashes and scrambling to outfit the kids, the lessons for the classroom but most imposing is the inner soul searching demanded of the season.
And imposing it is. The heaviness of the season feels like an intrusion. It is September, we are trying to get our kids back onto a schedule, trying to start programming off, and year after year we are stymied. At more meetings than not, dates and events are put off until after the holidays. Projects are postponed, life is on hold; and why? Why now? Is there not another time to be doing the repentance thing? Is there not a less busy time for atonement? What is it about the end of summer that demands judgment? Why now as the earth settles into dormancy are we commanded to pause, hold everything and to not pass “go”?
As the shofar is blown we receive the answer. The machzor, High Holiday prayer book, tells us, Today the world was created. The “today” refers not to Thursday September13 but today as in the first day of Tishrei, the first day of the seventh month which the Torah in Leviticus 23, tells us should be a day of complete rest, a sacred occasion commemorated with loud blasts. But there is no mention of the creation of the world here, no explanation for the choice of the date.
Midrash steps in with eloquence. The creation of the world actually begins five days before Rosh Hashanah. First comes light, water, clouds, trees, birds, fish, animals and finally on the sixth day of creation, on the first day of the seventh month, humans are created. With their creation - the world is created. Anthropocentric assuredly; the world’s creation is man’s creation and man’s creation is the creation of the world. And hence we say by extension, that one who destroys a single soul is accounted by Scripture as though they had destroyed a whole world.
This thought leads Rabbi Yose the Galilean to say: Whatever the Holy One, blessed be He created in the world He created in man. He created forests in the world, forests in humans - hair. He created channels in the world, channels in humans - ears. He created wind in the world, wind in humans - breath. He created salt water in the world - salt-water in humans - tears. He created flowing waters in the world - flowing waters in humans - blood. He created sweet water in the world, sweet water in humans - saliva. He created firmaments in the world, firmaments in humans - the tongue.
The day man is created is indeed the day the world is created, for each of us is a created world. Our world perceptions are based on our own personal experiences. No one sees things quite the same as anyone else. We really are our very own world. Popular expressions such as, he is in his own world, she thinks the world revolves around her, he is on his own planet reflect this. One difference, these are of a negative bent, while the Midrashic notion carries a very different and loftier tone. Awesomeness if you will. We each contain a microcosm of the magnificence of this world. We are each our own universe. Oddly the thought is humbling. What have we each accomplished with this magnificent world? Have we used the gifts that God has given us to make this world, our world, each of our worlds a better place? When we talk of Tikun Olam, repairing the world, might we perhaps begin with ourselves with our own world? This is the message of Rosh Hashanah. The greater world is created along with the particular worlds of each of us humans. To fix the greater world we begin with ourselves.
The Shofar service tells us, Today the world was created today all mankind is judged. And so we turn to the new year and its imposing mood. The overall placing of Rosh Hashanah at this time feels right. In Talmud class we’ve been talking a lot about the beginning of the Jewish day. We’ve been told since we were small that the Jewish day begins at night. But does it really feel like that? As the sun sets do you begin to feel like a new day? Of course not, that is the feeling you have upon awakening. But now for the beautiful Jewish lesson; the day begins at nightfall, because without darkness and rest and holding still time you cannot be ready for the day.
The year resembles the day; the fall is twilight, the winter, night, the spring, dawn; summer, a long day of sunshine. Yes, the Jewish day begins at night. The Jewish year begins with the setting sun, with the evening of the year, autumn. It starts with quiet contemplation. We are preparing for our year. It makes sense. The world and each of us is setting about to recreate itself, new thoughts, new promises, and new goals. These days I hear no tapping of typewriters. But sermons are being word-processed, honey cakes baked and Rosh Hashanah is almost here.