Friday, September 22, 2006

Happy Birthday World (Rosh HaShanah 5767)

Today is the birthday of the world. Today all created things in the world will stand in judgment, whether it be as children or as servants. If as children, have mercy upon us like a father upon his children. If as servants, our eyes are dependent upon You until You bring to light our judgment, awesome holy one. (Musaf, Rosh HaShanah)

This fascinating and familiar prayer, which we sing together three times during Musaf on Rosh HaShanah, gives us a remarkable insight into the way in which the great Jewish sages understood the whole notion of Rosh HaShanah.

We are so familiar with the idea that Rosh HaShanah is the ‘birthday of the world’, that we may never have stopped to think is it actually true. In fact, the status of Rosh HaShanah and whether it is actually the birthday of the world is a subject of dispute in the Talmud. Rebbi Eliezer's view is that the first of Tishrey (Rosh HaShanah) is indeed the anniversary of the creation of the world. Rebbi Yehoshua, on the other hand, understood that the world was created in Nissan. (the month in which Pesach falls).

This is an astonishing dispute. How can there be dissent about such a major issue? And if, as Rebbi Yehoshua claims, the world was created in Nissan, what is the purpose of the Rosh HaShanah which we celebrate today? How can we spend two whole days in prayer, focussed on new beginnings, blow the shofar to proclaim God King over the new world if Rosh HaShanah is not the anniversary of creation? Don’t we change the year number? (We have just moved from 5766 to 5767).

In this issue lies the key to understanding Rosh HaShanah. The great Tosfot essays (a collection of mediaeval studies on the Talmud) explains the dispute as follows. The world was indeed created in actuality in Nissan. However, it occurred to God to create it in Tishrey, but He did not actualise His plans until Nissan. What does it mean to say that God ‘plans’ to create something? Does He need time to implement the plan or to work out how to do it? This is obviously impossible. In fact, the notion that God ‘decides’ to create something is a metaphor for the projection of an ideal. Suggesting that ‘it occurred to God’ to create the universe means that God is determining and informing us what is expected of humanity. Tishrey represents pure din or justice - this means that Man is expected to merit judgment according to the Divine yardstick, which is the Torah. The reality, however, is that Mankind is fallible and needs Divine rachamim or mercy to survive at all. This is the actual creation in Nissan - the time of Divine mercy.

This tells us much about our Rosh HaShanah - we are striving for the ideal - attempting to gain such a clear vision of the Divine that we are able to live by the yardstick of Rosh HaShanah - Divine justice, rather than having to rely on Divine mercy. On the other hand, we recognise (and God validates this recognition) that we are weak human beings who fail. We may never bridge the gap between the reality and the ideal, but on Rosh HaShanah, we should be spending our time trying our utmost to do so.

This is actually indicated in the prayer with which we began. The word horat, which we translated as birthday, really means 'conception’, for 'today is the conception of the world.’ Today is the day on which the world was conceived in the perfect mind of God - and it is to that ideal which we aspire. Maybe this year we will close the space a little more; perhaps this Rosh HaShanah will inspire us to a deeper commitment to Judaism. The experience of Rosh HaShanah, during which the sovereignty of God is so palpable, should change us just a little. May we merit meaningful and fulfilling prayers, filled with awe of the Divine and the majesty of God.

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