Why Rosh Hashanah is the world's birthday
We unravel the connection between the Ten Days of Repentance and the story of Creation
“Let the earth bring forth grass, the herb-yielding seed and the fruit tree” — Creation, day three
On Rosh Hashanah, the anniversary of the creation of Adam and Eve, we celebrate God’s reign over us and His creation. But the great Chasidic leader Rabbi Nachman of Breslav suggests that this event is as much a handover as a coronation. Just as God created the universe with divine utterances, so He would have us recreate ourselves and our worldview during the Aseret Yemey Teshuvah, the Ten Days of Repentance, that begin on Rosh Hashanah and culminate with Yom Kippur.
Perhaps the ten utterances of creation characterise the ten days of repentance, with God’s first command defining our work on the first of the ten days, the second telling us about the second day, and so on.
What were these ten pronouncements? The Talmud (Rosh Hashanah 32a) says that the first creative act in the Torah, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth”, happened with speech, since the Psalmist says “With God’s word the heavens were made”. So Genesis 1:1 is the first utterance, and also defines the first stage in our ten stage process of repentance. The next eight are in the following verses beginning “And God said”.
The Vilna Gaon says that God’s command to Adam and Eve, “Be fruitful and multiply, fill the earth and subdue it”, was a commandment, not a creative utterance. This means that the tenth was “Behold I have given you every herb... and every tree ... as food” 1:29).
These ten pronouncements fall naturally into two groups, one of three and one of seven. The first three look at the cosmos from God’s point of view, while the last seven look at it from ours. Here are the first three:
“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.”
“And God said, ‘Let there be light.’”
“And God said, “Let there be a sky.”
God begins by defining the cosmos and limiting it to a human scale. Initially, there is the unimaginable, invisible enormity of the universe. By introducing light into the world, God grants vision, the key to understanding our own smallness and God’s greatness. Finally, the creation of the sky reduces the heavens to a magnitude that we can at least see, giving a sense of limit to our perspective.
This train of thought empowers us at the start of the Ten Days of Repentance. For the first three days, we concentrate on God, acknowledging not only His infinite greatness but also that He has enabled us to perceive and relate to Him, reducing the power of His presence so that we can live alongside Him.
The next seven utterances define the human condition, helping us to understand ourselves, our aspirations and our challenges. We recognise that we are not God. We live on land. We eat food.
“And God said, ‘Let the waters under the heaven be gathered into one place, and let the dry land appear.’”
“And God said, ‘Let the earth bring forth grass, the herb yielding seed, and the fruit tree yielding fruit after its kind.’”
But, for all this, we look heavenward, using the sky to discern signs from God, and hints about our festivals when we can meet up with Him:
“And God said, ‘Let there be lights in the sky of the heaven to divide the day from the night; and let them be for signs, and for festivals.’”
We move on from just seeking God to trying to resemble Him. We acknowledge our own animal nature, which is echoed first at a distance with fish in the sea and birds in the air, then close up with the animals on dry land like us:
“And God said, ‘Let the waters swarm with living creatures, and let birds fly above the earth.’”
“And God said, ‘Let the earth bring forth the living creatures, animals, and creeping things, and beasts of the earth.’”
Having seen our fellow creatures and learned what we have in common with them, we celebrate what is different about us: our being made in God’s image. We can dominate the animal within us, using it to serve God and not allowing it to drag us away from Him:
“And God said, ‘Let us make man in our image: and let them have dominion over the fish, and the birds, and the animals.’”
The tenth utterance corresponds to the tenth day of repentance — Yom Kippur. It is the last of the second group of seven, with which we finish our approach to God:
“And God said, ‘Behold, I have given you every herb and every tree; it shall be yours for food.’”
This does not seem creative at all. But we can understand it as the creation of kindness to other humans, since this verse depicts God giving to human beings. The tenth utterance defines the work of Yom Kippur, reminding us that, for all that we repent before God, our humanity is defective without altruism. On this day, we must mend our relationships with others in order to finish mending our world.
By taking this to heart, we can start the year 5770 in the best possible way, as partners with God in the work of perfecting the universe. And perhaps we will see the sequel to the tenth utterance:
“And God saw all that He had done, and it was very good.”
David Lister is rabbi of Edgware United Synagogue