What we can to do to wish the world a happy birthday

The Rosh Hashanah liturgy can help deepen our sense of connection with all Creation


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How are you?” I asked a friend. “Personally, I’m fine,” he replied, “but filled with existential dread about the state of the world.” It’s a pertinent Rosh Hashanah thought, when “the earth hangs suspended over the void,” awaiting God’s judgment, and ours, and that of our political leaders who have such a critical role to play in its destiny.

“Today is the birthday of the world”, we say. But there’s an alternative translation of hayom harat olam, attributed to a disciple of Rashi: “Today the world trembles.” If Rosh Hashanah is the world’s birthday, it doesn’t feel like a happy one just now.

“With the fields scorched, the orchards ruined, and fighting on the edge of the city, what are they going to eat this winter?” our Ukrainian guests explained through a translator. “We’re lucky; we’re here. But what about those who are fighting, and the civilian who can’t get out?” It’s not just in Ukraine, or Pakistan, but even in this country issues of how to heat and what to eat are foremost in many people’s, especially parents’ and teachers’, minds.

We need inspiration. This Rosh Hashanah more than ever we need moral and spiritual guidance to strengthen our hearts to work for our wonderful, endangered world. What, then, has the ancient, beautiful liturgy of these sacred days got to offer?

The Torah couldn’t be briefer about Rosh Hashanah, calling it simply Yom Teru’ah, a day of the horn’s outcry. But the Mishnah specifies three key themes: God’s royalty, remembrance and the shofar. Of these, the rabbis chose the middle as their name for the festival: Yom Hazikaron, the Day of Remembrance, or the Day of Mindfulness.

First and fundamentally, we are called upon to be mindful of the sovereignty of God. But the congregant who said, “All this praying about God as king doesn’t speak to me,” is not alone. I sometimes feel the same. It’s not just the gendered language, it’s the very concept of a God with absolute power who engages hands-on with human destiny.

It’s the age-old question, found already in the Psalms and echoed throughout the ages: Why won’t you help us when we need you, God? And if you aren’t able to, then where and what are you?

That’s why it’s so important to be open to God in different ways. The simple attribute Melech ha’olam, “Sovereign of the world”, occurs so frequently in our liturgy that one can take it for granted. But the mystics unpacked it, connecting olam with ne’elam which derives from the same root and means “hidden”.

They saw the world as a place where God is concealed. However, God is not hidden from, but hidden within, it, deep inside every living thing.

One can find God anywhere, wrote Rebbe Yehudah Aryeh Leib of Ger in a letter to his children. One only has to silence one’s ego and let one’s heart be attentive. For God is here and near in all existence; God is presence in the vital, sacred energy which flows through all being.

Sometimes it’s easier to hear God in nature, because we humans make so much noise. At night one can overhear the trees’ meditations. But God is there within each of us too, in the silence beneath the rushing of our thoughts and the pressures of our preoccupations. God, wrote Yehudah Halevi, is “nearer to us than our own body, our own soul”.

That, I believe, is the awareness to which Rosh Hashanah calls us. This leads us into zikaron, memory. Yom Hazikaron, the Day of Remembering, isn’t about the recollection of any specific event but about remembrance itself.

The remembrance meditations at the heart of the service call us home to our relationship with God, not just collective and historical but personal and intimate. They take us out of the immediacy of our present circumstances and locate us in the context of all time. They remind us of the deepest reality of who we are and before whom we are answerable. They place us in the consciousness of the all-present God, before whom we are known.

I don’t imagine God as the keeper of some vast heavenly ledger, the ultimate cloud where every thought-mail is stored. Rather, the presence of God is all around us, in our friends, in children, in homeless people, also in the animals, forests and meadows. At its deepest, remembrance brings us into connection with all life.

Here we come together in our conscience and before God’s presence with every living being with whom we’ve ever interacted. This a place of kinship, ultimately of love. But it is also a place of truth and accountability where we hear life ask us: What have you hurt? What have you healed? How will you live from now on?

These are the question in the shofar’s cry which rises up not just from the human soul, but from the raw heart of nature itself. It is God’s voice in all life, asking, demanding our response.

0 It was the summons to us at Sinai, and it summons us now. It’s the question Elijah heard on God’s mountain in that “voice of fine silence”, which follows the after-echo of the shofar’s call: ‘What are you doing here, Elijah?’ What am I, what are you, doing here now on this earth?

Rosh Hashanah is a re-awakening to our deepest faith and commitments. The hopes of all life depend on how we respond. Maybe, by hearing the presence of God in all things and acting with truthfulness and love, we can turn this “day when the world trembles” into a year of healing in which the world can truly celebrate its birthday.

Jonathan Wittenberg is Senior Rabbi of Masorti Judaism

Read more: Turning the other cheek can be a Jewish value too

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