A sermon by Rabbi Ben-Zion Gold for Rosh Hashanah 5755 (1994)
Our holidays are not always in sync with the general calendar. At times we have the feeling of swimming against the stream. Considering how integrated we have become into our society it is not a bad thing for us to be out of step from time to time. The High holidays come just at the right time of the year, after a relaxed summer and before we resume the year’s work, they invite us to reflect on some of the eternal yet timely questions of who we are and how we are to relate to God and to human beings.
It may surprise you to know that the holiday that we call Rosh Hashana is identified in the Bible merely as the first day of the seventh month and is described as a “day of sounding the Shofar” and offering animal sacrifices. Rosh Hashanah as we celebrate it along with its name was introduced much later by the sages of the Talmud. The Temple had been destroyed and the sacrificial mode of worship that had lasted for a thousand years had come to an end. In the process of reconstructing the religious life of the nation the sages of the Talmud linked this holiday with creation, named it Rosh Hashanah, declared it a Yom Hadin, a time of Divine judgment, and also Yom Hazikaron, a day of Remembering.
It will be interesting and instructive to ask why is Rosh Hashanah such solemn holiday, why the anniversary of creation is celebrated differently from the Passover, Shavuot, and Succoth for which the Bible prescribes rejoicing with the family.
As a matter of fact there is indirect evidence that in Biblical times also this holiday was, at least once, celebrated as a joyous occasion. The eight chapter of Nehemaiah begins with “When the seventh month arrived.” As you know the beginning of the seventh month is when we celebrate Rosh Hashana. At that time Ezra read selections from the Torah before a national assembly. We are told that the people wept from remorse and Ezra told them: “Go, eat choice food, drink sweet drinks and send portions to whomever has nothing prepared, for the day is holy to our Lord. Do not be sad, for your rejoicing in the Lord is the source of your strength.” (Neh. 8:10) I believe that this event was the first celebration of the holiday of Rosh Hashanah.
Why then did Rosh Hashanah become so solemn a time, a Day of Judgment and a Yom Hazikaron, a day of remembering, and what is it that we are to remember? Since the holiday celebrates creation I believe that an examination of the biblical story of Creation will provide some of the answers to these questions.
There are many different ways of reading the first chapter of the Bible. I propose that we read it as an introduction to the Bible, more specifically as an introduction to Monotheism. Under polytheism, the dominant religion of the Middle East during the second millennium before this era, human beings believed that the forces of nature surrounding them possessed divine power that could either harm or help them. Danger lurked on every step and human beings were constantly under the burden of seeking their favor. This multiplicity of divine powers made for an anxious and tense existence. The message of the Bible is addressed to this context.
When the Bible says, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth,” it makes three major radical assertions: One, that there is only one God and that this God is the source of all that exists; He created the earth, the heavens, and the whole natural order. Two, that none of the things He created possess independent powers, hence none of them are deities. And three, that the world we live in is precious because it was created by God. I propose that this is the way we should understand the story of creation, not as a dated account about the origin of the world, but as a radically new view of the world.
“And the Lord said let there be light and there was light” does not to tell us how God created light but that the God of the Bible is omnipotent. The Bible does not use abstract terms; it conveys ideas in picturesque stories and images, and creating by just giving a command is an expression of power, great power. In fact this is how the Psalmist understood it when he said, “By the word of the Lord the heavens were made, and all their host by the breath of his mouth.” He then exclaims: “Let all the inhabitants of the world stand in awe of Him! For He spoke and it came to be; He commanded and it endured.”(Psalm 33:6-8) The Psalmist marvels at the great display of Divine power.
This reading of the first chapter of Genesis is supported in Deuteronomy where all the things that were created are listed as potential idols. Israel is warned “Not to act wickedly and make a sculptured image of a man or a woman, the form of any beast on earth, the form of any bird that flies in the sky, the form of anything that creeps on the ground, the form of any fish that is in the waters…And when you look up to the sky and behold the sun and the moon and the stars, the heavenly host, you most not be lured into bowing down to them or serving them”. (Deut. 4:16-19) Here we have a clear statement denying the divinity of all of the things that are listed in the story of creation. It also provides us with clear evidence that they were indeed worshipped as such. Understood in this way we come to appreciate the real significance of the Creation story. For it introduces us to the Monotheistic world order that came to liberate humanity from the inexorable grip of nature deities.
At the center of this story is also a new conception of human beings. The key to the full significance of that conception lies in the puzzling phrase “And God created Man in His image, in the image of God He created him.” What does this phrase mean? An answer to this question we find in Assyrian literature of the second millennium before our era, shortly before Biblical times. There we are told that the king was spoken of as created in the image of the gods whereas commoners were created in the image of the King. Of the many meanings that this conception suggests, the one that is of importance to us is that being made in the image of God is a sign of divine favor and of great worth. Against the conception which singles out royalty for this distinction, the Biblical story extends that favor to all human beings. The full meaning of this phrase in the Biblical context is spelled out by the Psalmist, who exclaims,
What is Man that You have been mindful of him,
mortal man that You have taken note of him,
that You have made him little less than divine,
and adorned him with glory and majesty;
You have made him master over Your handiwork. (Ps. 8:5-7)
Thus, endowed with the Image and Likeness of God, humanity was raised from being the least in the polytheistic order to the summit of creation in Monotheism, and from anxious relations with a bewildering multiplicity of self-centered nature deities to a direct relationship with the all powerful and caring God. Commensurate with this dignity, they were given the supreme task of caring for the world that God brought into being. But along with dignity and status, also comes accountability.
These new conceptions about God, Humanity, the world, and the harmonious relationship between them introduced for the first time in the Biblical story of Creation, constitute an ideal that was realized only from time to time by individuals. But, Closeness to God, harmony with other human beings and a thoughtful caring for our natural surroundings has remained an ideal and a challenge that Monotheism poses to us at all times.
Realizing that human beings have tendencies to act against their own welfare as related in the Garden of Eden story, it was necessary to devise ways to help them meet the promise and challenge of Monotheism. To this end Israel was granted the revelation at Sinai with Commandments that would help them fulfill the challenge of Monotheism. To be sure, the commandments themselves are often turned into a sort of magic that is reminiscent of the ways of idolatry, when human beings plied magic to assure themselves of divine favor. While this tendency says much about human insecurity and mindlessness it does not invalidate the Mizvot that in the words of the Talmud “Were given to refine human beings.” (Gen. Rabb. 44:1) Precisely because of our wayward tendencies, the sages realized that human refinement is a never ending task, one that begins anew every morning.
It is important to note that the message of the Creation story is universal, it speaks about Human beings, and has its counterpart in Isaiah’s great vision of the future when: ”Nothing vile or evil shall be done; ”For the land shall be filled with the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.” (Isa. 11:9)
This does not mean that nations will abandon each their distinct ways; rather it means that God’s world has many mansions, which is the opposite of the Babel tower effort to homogenize humanity. It is a realization that the whole world and all of humanity are interrelated, and violations that take place in one part affect other parts. Something that ecology, nuclear power, and the satellite communication system have helped us realize.
On Rosh Hashanah we are reminded that when we forget the ideas of the Creation story, when instead of God we absolutise the state or another object, when we fail to see the image of God in all humanity but stratify it into higher and lower creatures, when we perceive our welfare only in individualistic and atomized terms, then we are on the way to chaos. The Rabbis who linked Rosh Hashanah with Creation took our tendencies into consideration, and challenged us to remember that we are not alone in this world, that all human beings are ultimately related and sacred and the world in which we live is the handiwork of God. That is the reason why Rosh Hashanah is a Yom Hazikaron, a day of recollection, and also a Yom Hadin, a day of judgment. In the drama of Rosh Hashanah we recapture these ideals, live with them during the ten days of Repentance in the hope that they will linger with us for the rest of the year.
As we enter the New Year of 5755, we remember some of the great things that took place during the preceding year as well as some that were shocking and frightening. The massacres in Rwanda set a new record in ferocity, cruelty, and suffering, a frightening negative example of what human beings are capable of doing to one another. As against that all of us were encouraged by the peaceful transition to integration in South Africa and the recent developments in Northern Ireland. We are of course full of gratitude for the new relationship between Jordan and Israel, and more recently for the diplomatic accords between Morocco and Israel, providing a ground for cautious optimism that, with God’s help, Israel may achieve peace with all of its neighbors before the fiftieth anniversary of its existence. We continue to pray for the removal of tyranny from the earth, and for the realization of Isaiah’s vision of universal enlightenment in which “Nation shall no more lift sword against nation.” Amen.
© 1991 Ben-Zion Gold
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