September 30, 2005

What will you hear this year?

Rosh Hashana actually doesn’t mean “New Year” but rather the Head, or Climax, of the year! After all, the Torah describes the festival as falling in the ‘seventh month’, and Nisan is the first of month of the year. Anyway, by the time we get to the Mishna, some two thousand years ago, we find not one but four New Years.

The first of Nisan is the New Year for Months and Kings (thank goodness we don’t have any anymore, and no I’m not ecstatic at the prospect of the Messiah reinstituting the monarchy--I only hope Elijah persuades him to try other forms of government instead).

The first of Elul is the break-off point for deciding which newborn animals in your herds need tithing in any given year. Both Rebbi Elazar and Rebbi Shimon think it’s the first of Tishrei. See rabbis have been arguing on fundamentals for thousands of years and show no sign of tiring.

The first of Shevat is the New Year for Trees according to the school of Shammai, but it’s the fifteenth according to Hillel.

And the first of Tishrei is the New Year for Years, Seventh-Year Sabbaticals and Jubilees, and for fixing the three years fruit trees must grow before you can eat the fruit, and the cut-off point for tithing vegetables! Wow, if ever there was a case of rabbinic inflation, this is it!

But, joking aside, the Mishna goes on to say that on Rosh Hashana (quoting Psalms 36) ALL humanity pass before God like sheep (one by one, like soldiers in single file). I have always been struck by the fact that it says and is repeated in our liturgy, “ALL of humanity”, not only Jews. Somehow we have got used to thinking that God only sits in judgment of Jews on Rosh Hashana, and that we should be thinking about and praying for ourselves exclusively.

Yet the text is very clear. This is about everyone, the whole of the world, all humanity. Believe it or not, if one accepts the idea of God as Creator, then logically God must care about everyone created, even a humble peasant on the Ganges delta (or in Darfur, for that matter, although clearly the UN doesn’t give a damn). But you really wouldn’t know it to hear some people go on about how only Jews have Heavenly Souls and “shikker is a goy” and “only Yidden are close to the Almighty” and anyway who cares about the rest of the world “cos ‘I’m alright, Moishe”!

Now I believe that is why the shofar is so crucial to the occasion—precisely because it is all sound, totally universal and equal to all human beings, with no words that can carry cultural baggage. And sound can conjure up so many different emotions. The three sounds are all universal sounds of sadness, pain and alarm. We switch off when rabbis and politicians speak and preach. But perhaps a deep piercing sound can penetrate our egotistical carapaces where words cannot.

You know that in Classical music there’s a school of thought that works should be played on instruments of the time they were written, which creates a sound very different from that of modern orchestras. But the sound of the shofar today is the same sound that accompanied the exiles from the Inquisition, the Romans, and the Babylonians. It is the same sound that was heard four thousand years ago. So nothing conjures up the history of our people like the Shofar.

In the Gemara the rabbis disagree as to when the world was created. (No, dear readers, two thousand years ago no one had heard of Darwin or carbon dating.) Was it Nisan or was it Tishrei? (And, wonder of wonders, no one called the person who disagreed a heretic. But we were evidently much more civilized two thousand years ago, of course.) So Rosh Hashana has come to symbolize a new start, for us and for the world. A chance to rethink and to try to get it right. Or at least to do better than last year.

The great Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav said the crying of the shofar is the pain of childbirth. To create something new you have to break out of the old. The newborn child’s first sound is the cry. It heralds something new. So on Rosh Hashana we return to the womb in a way—the womb we came from and the womb of the world’s creation. On both humanity has etched its marks and sullied the purity of the original vision but now we are given an opportunity to return, to write a new chapter.

Sadly for most of us the routines of religion or of social expectation or of habit are just that—routines, carried out without a thought or without any intention of change. And so another child is born to cry on earth and die too soon and fail to fulfill its potential. And another part of nature is eradicated to meet the material appetites for more. And our religion will continue to be hijacked by obscurantists, while at the same time it grows and it thrives and ‘waxes fat’ within its own self-preoccupied little ghettos. And the world that God created goes on and another year passes, and what, dear friends, have we really done since last time?

When we hear the Shofar and we finally say “Next Year in Jerusalem”, will we really mean it or will we just be relieved it’s all over and go back to our old ways for another year?

Have a sweet year everyone, in which we try to make it sweet for others too!


(I want to thank Rabbi Zvi Leshem for some of his ideas.)

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