By Rabbi Stephen Lewis Fuchs
Despite the violence that plagues American cities and the growth of terrorism around the world Jews will welcome Rosh Hashanah 5777 on Sunday evening, Oct. 2, with hope that the New Year will be better than the last.
Our New Year celebrates the anniversary of the creation of the world. “This is the day of the world’s birth,” we proclaim each time we hear the shofar’s blast on Rosh Hashanah!
Rosh Hashanah receives very little mention in the Torah, but it grew into the major celebration it is today because our people needed a day to celebrate the message and ideals of Genesis’ magnificent story of Creation.
The Creation story is not a scientific account of the world’s creation. It is a religious poem teaching us why we are here. The truths of the Creation story are the religious ideas that it sets forth ideas upon which all subsequent Jewish thought rest.
The first assumption of the story is that God is behind creation.
However the world came to be, our story contends that a single, good caring God initiated the process. God acted with purpose and meaning. That leads to the story’s second assumption: Our lives have purpose and meaning.
In the story, everything builds on what comes before. Note the rhythm and the repetition of certain key phrases: “And God said, “Let there be … and there was … And God saw … that it was good.” And there was evening and there was morning …” These recurring refrains convey a sense of order and intention.
Third, the story teaches that we human beings – not the rhinoceros, the crocodile or the tiger – are created “in the image of God.” That does not mean that we look like God.
It means that we humans are in charge of and responsible for the world.
The Midrash (Bereshit Rabbah 8:11) teaches that we human beings stand midway between God and the rest of the animals. Like the animals we eat, sleep, drink, procreate, eliminate our waste and die. But in a God-like way we have the power to think, analyze, create and shape the environment in a way that far surpasses any other creature.
We are the only creatures on earth that can go to the side of a mountain, mine ore from the mountain, and turn the ore into iron, the iron into steel and with that steel forge the most delicate of surgical instruments to heal and to save lives.
We are, also, the only creatures that can go to the same mountain, mine the same ore and from that ore fashion bombs and bullets whose only purpose is to kill and to maim.
The overriding message of the story is that God wants us to use our power to form a just, caring, and compassionate society on earth. But we – not God – must decide if we will.
The final religious teaching of the story concerns Shabbat. On the seventh day God rested, and God wants us to rest too, but not just in the sense of relaxation. God wants us to have a day each week to step back and ponder how we can do a better job of fashioning the type of society God wants.
Genesis’ magnificent creation story teaches that God entrusts the earth to our care. It is, though, as the Midrash (Ecclesiastes Rabbah 7:13) reminds us, the only earth we will get.
May that knowledge inspire us to care for it lovingly and use the talents with which God has blessed us to hand over a safer, sweeter, more ecologically sound world to our children and grandchildren! That is the hope we celebrate on Rosh Hashanah. May all who read this essay – wherever you may be in the world – revel in the potential of Creation, and may the blessings of health, joy and meaningful living await you in the New Year!
Rabbi Stephen Lewis Fuchs is the former President of WUPJ and Rabbi Emeritus of Congregation Beth Israel, West Hartford. His first book, What’s in It for Me? Finding Ourselves in Biblical Narratives has been translated into German and Russian. His second book, ToraHighlights has just been published with English and German in the same volume as a gesture of reconciliation between Progressive Judaism and the German people.
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CAP: Rabbi Stephen Lewis Fuchs