Rosh Ha-Shanah: birthday of the world

Rabbi Elizabeth Tikvah Sarah reflects on the importance of Rosh Ha-Shanah and how it helps all of us to remember:

Rosh Ha-Shanah, the Jewish New Year, will begin as the sun sets on Monday evening (September 29). Jewish life is complex; there are actually two other significant new years besides Rosh Ha-Shanah: the new year for months is in the spring, starting with the month of Nisan, which ushers in the festival of Pesach (Passover) on the 15th of that month; and the New Year for Trees, known by its date, Tu Bishvat, is celebrated on the 15th day of the Hebrew month of Sh’vat.

Rosh Ha-Shanah, literally, “the head of the year”, which falls at the beginning of the seventh month, Tishri, as the year turns, is the New Year for years. This new year will be 5769. But the number of years, based on the chronologies given in the Torah from the account of creation onwards – a mythical number – is far less significant than the concept behind it: Jewish time begins, not with the first ancestors of the Jewish people, Abraham and Sarah, but rather with the beginning of everything. On Rosh Ha-Shanah, the liturgy proclaims: “Ha-yom harat olam.” (Today is the birthday of the world.) So, at the core of Judaism: universalism.

A remembering people, our collective remembering centres on the creation of the world and the exodus from Egypt; each recalled, not just annually, but in the daily liturgy, and emphasised in the weekly observance of the Sabbath, which is a “memorial” of both. The purpose of our remembering is not simply to recollect the past, but to learn from it, so that we may acknowledge the present and shape the future.

She continues:

We remember, but there is no going back. Jewish time is not caught in an endless cycle; it spirals towards the future. The word, shanah, “year”, suggesting “repetition”, also evokes “change”. The new year summons us to transform our lives. It teaches us that we can stop repeating destructive patterns of behaviour and move on. This year Rosh Ha-Shanah coincides with the 70th anniversary of that infamous moment on September 30 1938, when Neville Chamberlain stepped off a plane, following his meeting with Adolf Hitler in Munich, waving a sheet of paper like a white flag of surrender, and then declared outside 10 Downing Street peace for our time. Less than six weeks after Munich, on the night of November 9, known later as Kristallnacht (the night of broken glass) following five years of systematic discrimination, the violent assault of the Jewish people began.

Seventy years on, as we face a new year, forgetfulness reigns: yet more tyrants; yet more victims. And so, the summons of “the birthday of the world” seems ever more urgent – not just for Jews, but also for humanity.

Read it all here.

Elizabeth Tikvah Sarah is rabbi of Brighton and Hove Progressive Synagogue

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