Jewish World Review Sept. 6, 2002 / 29 Elul 5762

Rosh Hashana: Celebrating the birthday of the world

By Rabbi Yonason Goldson | All the world over, people delight in celebrating birthdays. Children spend weeks composing long lists of presents they want and designing parties in their own honor. Adults write shorter lists of more expensive presents and plan more elaborate parties.

Traditional Judaism, however, teaches us to commemorate not the day of birth but the day of death instead. Whereas birth signals the beginning of virtually unlimited human potential, the yahrtzeit, or anniversary of passing, represents the degree to which that potential was realized. Did the departed live a life of honesty and integrity, love for family and commitment for the community, respect for mankind and reverence for heaven? If so, the anniversary of death becomes cause for inspiration, much more than any birthday.

There is, however, one exception: Rosh Hashana.

The first day of the Jewish new year not only ushers in a season of renewal, but also celebrates the anniversary of the creation of the world -- or, more accurately, the birthday of mankind, for whom the world was created.

Why this departure from tradition? Why, in this solitary case, does a birthday take on such significance? In truth, every birthday is significant, not as an excuse for celebration, but rather as an opportunity for self-reflection. With each passing birthday we should ask ourselves what have we done with the years that have been allotted us, and how what must we do to accomplish more with the years we have remaining?

And so, as both the Jewish new year and the birthday of the world, Rosh Hashana obliges us to reflect upon the role we as Jews have played in benefiting the world we live in. And to do that, some knowledge of Jewish history is imperative lest, as Santayana famously warned, we condemn ourselves to repeat our past mistakes over and over again.

When the Jewish people stood together at Sinai to receive the Divine Law, they accepted not only a code of moral and ethical behavior but also the mandate to serve as a "light to the nations," to set so high a moral standard that the rest of the world would take notice and follow their example. Tragically, a mere 40 days later, panicked by the delay of their leader, Moses, to return, the people committed the Sin of the Golden Calf.

But unlike Cecil B. De Mille's revision of history, the Jews themselves neither instigated nor participated in the sin of the calf.

Rather, it was the Egyptian converts who had followed the Jews out from servitude who set up the calf and worshipped it while the Jews stood by and did nothing. Nevertheless, charged with the mission to light the path of righteousness before the nations of the earth, the Jews' sin of omission was so grievous, their failure to put a stop to the worship of the calf so contemptible, that the Almighty indicted them as responsible for the sin of idolatry itself.

In many ways, the Sin of the Golden Calf serves as the paradigm for all the shortcomings and indiscretions of the Jewish people throughout our history. Sometimes our sin has been the mere appearance of wrongdoing, as with the sons of Samuel the Prophet, whose attempts to divert funds to underpaid public servants was misperceived as graft. Sometimes it was a failure of resolve, as with King Saul, whose ill-timed impulse of compassion allowed the murderous nation of Amolek and its malicious hatred to survive. Sometimes it was even overzealousness in the service of Heaven, as with King David, whose genuine vision of messianic potential filled him with such eagerness that he failed to wait for the fruit of his destiny to fully ripen on the vine.

And sometimes, our sin has been identical to that of the Golden Calf -- to stand silently by, whether out of fear or uncertainty or moral equivalence, and allow evil to run its course.

In today's conflicted world, rife with clerical scandals, economic uncertainty, and international terrorism, it is more critical than ever that we find meaning and relevance in Rosh Hashana. When the shofar blows, let us hear in it the echoes of our past, gaining inspiration from our heroes while learning from their mistakes. In this way, we can celebrate the birthday of the world by renewing and strengthening our commitment, letting history and tradition guide our path as we step forward into the future.

JWR contributor Rabbi Yonason Goldson teaches at Block Yeshiva High School and Aish HaTorah in St. Louis. Comment by clicking here.

© 2002, Rabbi Yonason Goldson