THE BIRTHDAY OF THE WORLD
Rosh Ha-Shanah; the Jewish New Year. But there’s nothing very new about it. The COVID-19 pandemic continues. The world will not be free of it until all the world’s peoples are vaccinated. When will that be? Meanwhile, devastating floods and raging fires. Climate catastrophe is not a future threat it is a present danger.
As Jews across the world mark the second New Year during the pandemic, the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 terror attacks in the United States looms just days away. The word ‘anniversary’ suggests the simple marking of an event in the past, but as we all know, that day of destruction inaugurated the so-called ‘war against terror’, which has been continuous ever since.
Somehow, over 70 years after the establishment of the United Nations in the aftermath of World War II and the Sho’ah, the Nazi Holocaust, the nations of the world have still not found ways of dealing with conflict that don’t incite more conflict, and generate more death and devastation.
And yet, in recent decades, we have been exposed through the media to a new discourse that speaks of everything in global terms. And there is no doubt that Brexit and the persistence of nationalism apart, we are increasingly global citizens, beset by global economic crises and threatened by global climate catastrophe and ecological disaster – and more recently, the global coronavirus pandemic. And then, as the sites of oppression and conflict proliferate, there is the global refugee crisis. Wave after wave of refugees; some finding themselves caged in camps, others risking their lives in flimsy boats to get to safety. And now, Afghans desperate to flee following the withdrawal of American and British forces and the resurgence of the Taliban and ISIS.
Bombarded by incessant images of chaos and destruction from across the globe, has this new ‘global’ consciousness impacted on our understanding of the world and our place within it; our sense of responsibility for the Earth and towards one another?
I mentioned the Jewish New Year. Rosh Ha-Shanah, literally, the ‘head of the year’, has several names. One of these tells us that it is ‘the birthday of the world’ – harat olam. Significantly, the Jewish calendar does not begin with Abraham and Sarah, the first ancestors of the Jewish people, but rather with the creation of the world. On Rosh Ha-Shanah, when a new year begins, its date reflects the chronologies listed in the Torah, going right back to B’reishit, Genesis. Of course, this doesn’t mean that the world is, literally, 5782 years old as of this New Year. But the ‘birthday of the world’ reminds us to consider our lives and the present realities of life today in the context of the very beginnings of Life itself.
Importantly, the Hebrew word for ‘world’, olam, does not simply designate a particular globe in the firmament. It can also be translated as ‘universe’. The very first verse of the Torah states: B’reishit bara Elohim eit ha-shamayim v’eit ha-aretz – ‘In beginning God created the heavens and the Earth’ (Genesis 1:1). Note: not ‘In the beginning’, which would be ba-reishit in Hebrew; the creative force is an ongoing process. The six-word blessing formula also reflects the understanding that the Creator is the ‘Sovereign of the universe’ –Melech ha-olam: ‘Blessed are you, Eternal One, Sovereign of the universe’. And olam does not just denote the vastness of space. In another liturgical formulation, olam expresses the corresponding concept of ‘eternity’, as in the phrase, l’olam va-ed, ‘forever and ever’.
Rosh Ha-shanah is the ‘birthday of the world’; a commemoration of the birth of the universe; a portal to eternity.
We are not simply situated on a globe, a planet, the Earth. At night we can gaze at the sky and know that the lights twinkling in the blackness are stars and galaxies billions of light-years away.
At the Jewish New Year, we acknowledge the beginning of space/time and are challenged to acknowledge our responsibility as guardians of this small spinning planet in the vast universe – our only home.
Yes, our only home. Space exploration in the past 50+ years has revealed astonishing information about the solar system in which the Earth is located. In his wonderful TV series, ‘The Planets’, Professor Brian Cox combined intelligibility with eloquence as he spoke about the findings of the space missions that have extended to the furthest reaches of the solar system.
The images beamed back to Earth of these distant worlds are incredible: the red rock vistas of Mars; the magnificent rings surrounding Saturn. Yes, there are signs of water on Neptune and Uranus. And the research of University of Cambridge astronomers has suggested recently that “ocean-covered” ’Mini Neptunes’ detected beyond the solar system “with hydrogen-rich atmospheres” “may soon yield signs of life”. So, perhaps, it may be possible one day for human beings to walk on Mars, and even live there in special constructions sealed from the hostile atmosphere. Perhaps it may even be possible to travel beyond the solar system. But life as we know it, life in the open air, breathable life beyond the Earth, in the company of other living creatures, oxygenated by trees and vegetation, is not possible. And if there is intelligent life elsewhere in the universe, scientists have not yet detected a single minute murmur.
The Earth is our only home. We must begin to address the consequences of our misuse and abuse of it before it’s too late and learn to share it. As a new year begins, may we all resolve to work together to share and repair the world.
Rabbi Elli Tikvah Sarah
September 2021 / Tishri 5782
As in the second verse of the Sh’ma: Baruch sheim k’vod malchuto l’olam va-ed, ‘Blessed be [the] Name whose glorious majesty is for ever and ever’; a liturgical response inserted after the first verse of the biblical text (Deuteronomy 6:4-9). ↑