We Jews celebrate not just one but two Jewish new years. The one we call Rosh Hashanah (the 1st of Tishre) is rabbinic. The other one, which is biblical, falls exactly half a year later (the first of Nisan) to mark the month of Passover. They are altogether different in nature, and we need them both. Passover tells us “what” we are; Rosh Hashanah announces “why” we are. We are a Passover People with a Rosh Hashanah mission.
The biblical new year anticipates Passover, the formative event of the Jewish People. Its distinctive ritual, the seder, rehearses our Jewish story, how we were freed from Egypt that we might become a people, uniquely pledged to our God and to God’s Torah that we received at Sinai. Nowadays, we commonly invite non-Jewish guests to the seder, but in former times, the seder was so particularistically Jewish that non-Jews were actually excluded.
The rabbinic new year that arrives each Autumn is precisely the reverse. Far from being particularistic, it announces the universalistic Jewish responsibility to the world at large. It is a time to stand before God and take stock of what we are, how well we have behaved, and not just as Jews, but as members of the human race, part of kol ba’ei olam, “everyone who enters the world.”
The overwhelming message of Rosh Hashanah is our humanity that we share with everyone, just by virtue of being born human. The main shofar blasts are divided into three, the first of them celebrating God as universal ruler of all, not just the God who (on Passover) saved the Jewish people alone. Each set of blasts is followed by a line we usually mistranslate: Hayom harat olam: not “This is the world’s birthday,” but “This is the day the world was conceived.” God is pictured as a mother conceiving all the world, all humanity. The shofar blasts themselves are talmudically described as cries by a mother in labor – the last great t’kiyah g’dolah is her last great push as the world is actually born.
Thinking of the universal hope that someday all humanity will live in peace and harmony, a medieval poet wrote a High Holy Day poem, called V’ye’etayu, “They (all peoples) shall come [together to serve God.]” A British Jew, Israel Zangwill (1864-1926), famously translated it as “All the world shall come to serve Thee,” a version that became a staple for most Reform congregations in English-speaking countries. Another High Holy Day staple, a prayer added to the Amidah announces, “Let all whom you have made revere you… Let all of them form a single group and do your will.”
In the long and varied flow of Jewish history, Jews have sometimes struggled to balance the twin messages of our two great new years. Without the Jewish People, we – and Judaism with us – would disappear from the face of the earth. Hence, Passover, to gather us around our collective story: we were slaves; God redeemed us; we met God at Sinai; and we were brought to our promised land. But Judaism is not just about survival. It is about our duty to a larger vision: the vision of Rosh Hashanah where, indeed, even in our Land of Israel, we work for the benefit of all people, all creatures who were birthed by the God of the shofar, the God of us all.
I like the image of God as mother giving birth to us all. I wonder what such a God would say of how her children treat one another in the land that we call holy.
The Jewish new year that we call Rosh Hashanah reminds us Jews of why we are Jewish: we are to bring about the day when even the peoples who contend over rights within the Jewish State of Israel will discover we are both children of God, destined not for war but for peace.
Rabbi Lawrence A. Hoffman is Professor Emeritus of Liturgy, Worship and Ritual at Hebrew Union College, NY