What We Really Celebrate on Rosh HaShanah
“Hayom harat Olam!” “This is the day of the world’s birth,” we proclaim each time we hear the shofar’s blast. It is the central message of Rosh HaShanah, the Jewish new year: to celebrate the teachings and ideals of Genesis’ magnificent creation story.
“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth,” our Torah begins, so many ask: How could God have created the world in seven days? What about the dinosaurs and evolution? Don’t we believe in that?
Of course we believe in that! The creation story in Genesis does not offer a scientific account of how the world was created; it is rather an exquisite religious poem offering insight as to why we are here.
The biblical authors were not interested in writing science. The truths of the creation story are the religious ideas that it sets forth – ideas upon which all subsequent Jewish thought depends.
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 and, therefore, our lives have purpose and meaning.
The story also reminds us that we human beings are in charge of and responsible for the world.
Until the text begins to tell of the creation of humanity, the method by which God creates is simple: God said, “Let there be...” and the next step in creation unfolds.
With human beings, God’s method changes.:
“And God said: ‘Let us create humanity in our image after our likeness. And they shall rule the fish of the sea, the birds of the air on the cattle and all the earth and everything that creeps on the earth.’ And God created us human beings – male and female – in the Divine Image.” (Genesis 1:26)
That does not mean that we look like God; God has no shape or form. It means that we human beings have God-like powers, and the Almighty puts us in charge of and responsible for the earth. It is an awesome power, and we can use it for good or for ill.
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 ways that far surpass any other creature.
Only humans can mine ore from a 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.
But only humans can mine the same ore to fashion bombs and bullets whose only purpose is to kill and to maim.
Finally, the creation story introduces the concept of Shabbat, a weekly day to step back from our strivings and contemplate how we can better fulfill God’s charge to us to make a better world.
Genesis’ creation story makes no pretense of being scientific. It teaches the core values of our tradition. It teaches that God entrusts the earth to our care, and it warns us, as the Midrash (Ecclesiastes Rabbah 7:13) reminds us: This is the only earth we will get.
The message of Rosh HaShanah is that we must care for the earth God entrusted to our care and work – each of us in our own way – to create on it a just, caring, and compassionate society.