WHAT MAKES ROSH HASHANAH SO IMPORTANT?
by Tanya Hochschild
The Beit Luria Progressive Synagogue of Johannesburg, South Africa, invited Rabbi Stephen Fuchs of Bat Yam Temple of the Islands to deliver “A Rosh Hashanah Lesson,” recently. Rabbi Julia Margolis extended the invitation to congregants from Australia, America and Israel. All were invited to join the Zoom group.
The following is a summary of Rabbi Fuchs address. He began… when you read the Book of Leviticus you will see a list of important holidays in Chapter 23. These sacred occasions include Shabbat, Passover, Sukkot, Shavuot all toward the top of the list, indicative of their importance. These so-called pilgrim or harvest festivals were the lifeblood of the Jewish people.
Three times a year Jews made a pilgrimage to Jerusalem to pray at the Temple. At that time Rosh Hashanah was a minor holiday; today Rabbis prepare for weeks, so the question is, how did it go from being a minor holiday to the giant place it has in our hearts today?
Everything changed in Jewish life in the year 70 when the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed. The pillars of Jewish life were ripped away from us, we lost animal sacrifice as a primary way of worshipping God. The power of the priestly class disappeared. It should have ended Jewish life but a group of scholars, the Pharisees, reformed Judaism based on three ideas.
Torah reading became an essential feature, at every Shabbat and other services a portion of the scroll is read. Judaism is the only religion that elevates study to become a form of worshipping God. Secondly prayer became important. We always sang psalms, but without sacrifices, prayer moved to the center. Thirdly acts of kindness and compassion, the Pharisees believed, would make the world a better place. Those three ideas are the essence of Judaism today.
We developed liturgy prioritizing our most important concerns. These priorities are referenced in two biblical events, the remembrance of the act of creation and the going forth from Egypt. There is always a direct reference to these two at morning and evening prayers. Inherent in these two prayers is the message we are responsible for this world. Being aware of this knowledge leads us to understanding how Rosh Hashanah became Rosh Hashanah.
It is the anniversary of creation. Just as Passover commemorates the exodus from Egypt, so Rosh Hashanah commemorates the birthday of the world. We celebrate creation and in part the unique story found in the Torah in the first chapter of Genesis. This story of creation begins, “In the beginning God…” nowhere in the other 38 books of the bible does anyone try to show proof of God. God is an assumption of a good, caring God who has an agenda and the agenda is to do what we can to create a just, caring and compassionate society. Genesis is a poetic truth, not a scientific truth.
At verse 26 we read about God creating humanity in his image. They shall rule the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, rule over all living things. This implies responsibility because humans are created in the image of God to take care of everyone, including the stranger, the widow and the orphan. The creation story, Rabbi Fuchs says, is a lovely poem. The corollary to this is that our lives matter. Our job is to embrace God’s hope that we will be god-like to do a better job of living up to God’s hope – that is the essence of Rosh Hashanah. It is the flagship story of all subsequent Jewish thoughts.
Those of us who heard the Rabbi’s message approach this Rosh Hashanah, with a renewed appreciation of the miracle of creation and our responsibility in the world to practice “tikkun olam,” repair of the world.