Most holidays on the Jewish calendar commemorate something involving the Jewish people, whether that be ritualistic, agricultural, or historical. On the surface, the holiday of Rosh Hashanah is no different. When we think of Rosh Hashanah, we typically summarize it as the “Jewish New Year,” the anniversary of the day that the world was created, the day we began counting Jewish time. Our liturgy echoes this notion, as we sing in services HaYom Harat Olam, “Today is the birthday of the world!” However, if we closely examine what our sages say about creation, we arrive at a radically different meaning of Rosh Hashanah.
Rosh Hashanah falls on the first of the month of Tishrei. But, as is often the case with Jewish tradition, the rabbis debate about this date being the anniversary of creation. While the Talmud advocates for the first of Tishrei, the Midrash argues that creation began on the twenty-fifth of Elul, six days prior. So, what is the difference between these two dates, and why should it matter for us today?
If the world was in fact created on the first of Tishrei, then it is accurate to say that Rosh Hashanah is the birthday of the world. However, if the Midrash is correct, and creation began on the twenty-fifth of Elul, then Rosh Hashanah falls not on the first but on the sixth day of creation, the day that God created Adam and Eve. Thus according to the Midrash, Rosh Hashanah marks not the birthday of the world but the birthday of humanity.
It is not the creation of the Jewish people—that is Passover. It is not the creation of the state of Israel—that is Yom Ha’atzmaut. It is not about anything particularly Jewish at all. Rather, the Midrash suggests that Rosh Hashanah is a uniquely universal Jewish holiday which, at its core, celebrates that all people were created in the image of God.
Further, elsewhere in the Talmud the rabbis claim that on Rosh Hashanah our forefather Joseph “came out from prison” and on Rosh Hashanah “our ancestors’ slavery in Egypt ceased.”
Therefore, on Rosh Hashanah not only are we reminded that all people were created in the image of God, but we also recognize a relationship between being created in the image of God and being free. What would it mean to transform Rosh Hashanah into a day on which we acknowledge the divine spark in every human being, and the right of every human being to live in freedom? What a profound way to reframe it!
This past year our humanity and our freedom have been challenged in so many ways. We have been struck by a worldwide pandemic that has stripped us of our normal routines, of our livelihood, and even of our lives; we have watched systemic racism continue to rear its ugly head and rob our Black and brown neighbors of their dignity, their families, and their lives; we have seen hunger and poverty run rampant, and we have witnessed our nation torn apart by leaders and citizens who refuse to see the humanity in the ‘other.’
Looking to the year ahead, may the holy day of Rosh Hashanah remind us that plague, racism, economic inequality, and indifference are not things to talk about in a moment of crisis and forget about in a moment of calm. Instead, may we as a Jewish community commit to education and activism, and to embracing and learning from those who are different. And in so doing, may we truly honor the essence of Rosh Hashanah and the divine humanity in all of us.