Rosh Hashanah is not only New Years according to the Jewish calendar, but also celebrates the birthday of the world, or as other rabbinic traditions have it, the birthday of the first humans, as recorded in the Book of Genesis. Either way, Rosh Hashanah teaches important truths about the biblical story of creation — truths we all need, regardless of faith, faithlessness, or any of the myriad ways we think about how either the world or the human race came into existence.
This is not a plea for the global acceptance of the literal truth about creation as recorded in the Hebrew Bible. And it’s certainly not a defense of the literal truth that the world is 5774 years old. I will leave those debates to those who prefer heat to light.
Those claims, and the fights which they typically evoke, are actually fights about accuracy, not truth, and typically do far more harm than good, regardless of what one happens to believe. In the tussle over the veracity of an infinitely interesting narrative, both sides tend to miss the truths which can, and must, speak to all people.
I am talking about truths that flow from the biblical story of creation, truths which are celebrated on Rosh Hashanah, and the importance of celebrating those truths regardless of what faith or no faith we follow. I am talking about the importance of a story which teaches that we all share a common ancestor, which means that we are all family.
Taking the Genesis story seriously, if not literally, though that can work too when it comes to the “big truths” this story teach, means appreciating that all humans, regardless of the issues and experiences which divide us, are fundamentally connected, and that whatever we do to each other, we are also doing to ourselves. It means that there is, in the words of the ancient rabbinic sages, a basic equality, fundamental dignity and infinite value to all human beings.
Imagine taking two days a year out of whatever calendar you hold most sacred religious, cultural, political, etc. and not just any two days, but two of the holiest days in that calendar, and devoting them to the celebration of that kind of inter-connectedness and inter-dependence. That is Rosh Hashanah.
Yes, there is repentance, forgiveness, the blowing of the ram’s horn, know in Hebrew as the shofar, and the eating of foods like apples dipped in honey to symbolize our hopes for a sweet year to come. I believe deeply in all of those traditions, and love them just as deeply. But what allows them all to hang together what allows us to seek forgiveness and grant it to others, to call out in prayer, and aspire to better times ahead, is the fundamental claim that we, all of us, are in this together.
We face many challenges in the world today, and most of us have plenty of personal challenges as well, so this is no Pollyannaish claim that we can simply hug them all away. It is simply a reminder, as old as Genesis itself, that we are more connected than we often realize, and that in reminding ourselves of those connections, we can find ways to make this year better than last whatever calendar we happen to use.
Image via Rocco Rossi.