Another Perspective

Scaling the Heights

Rosh Hashanah arrives just in time, a nuanced blend of jubilation and trepidation.

By 9.30.08

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There is a bailout, there is no bailout. There is a crisis, there is no crisis. There is a recession, there is no recession. Pelosi hammered a deal, Pelosi blew the vote. If you can make sense of the last few days of news, you must be a world-class economist, a genius of real estate, an expert on financial markets, a maestro of mathematics and a wizard of politics.

This much is clear: the world is hanging in the balance. A few right moves -- although no one is sure what they might be -- can catapult fate forward in significant ways. A few wrong moves, and the consequences may verge on the horrifying. Sure enough, Tuesday is Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, when the tradition says that the entire world stands in judgment to determine the allocation of resources for the coming year.

The traditional Jewish understanding of the Biblical holidays includes elements that are not explicit in the Scriptural text. The Biblical language is said to describe the body of the festival while the tradition passes along the soul of the day. In that context, the holiday of Rosh Hashanah is observed at stark variance with the impression one might glean from perusing the Bible. There we are told that the first day of the seventh month should be "a day of trumpeting†(Numbers 29:1), and a time of "commemorative trumpeting†(Leviticus 23:24). Just to suggest that this celebrates the new year clashes with its opening designation as being in the seventh month.

Here we have one of the most powerful sources for the notion that the Bible was intended to be supplemented by an oral tradition. Here we have a special day that is not linked to any agricultural event, with no significance attached to its date, described only by a vague reference to trumpeting and to the commemoration of... what?

The back story provided by tradition, and expounded upon in the prayer liturgy, says the following. There are two Jewish calendars, the one for the world and the one for the Jews themselves. The Jewish internal calendar begins with the Exodus from Egypt, when Jewish history begins. By that calculation, Rosh Hashanah begins the seventh month. The Jewish universal calendar begins when mankind was created. That took place on this very day.

As such, every other Jewish holiday celebrates an internal event with universal themes. But Rosh Hashanah is a universal day intrinsically; it celebrates the birthday of humanity. This is the "commemorative trumpeting,†a triumphant proclamation of the act of Creation and the emergence of mankind as its ultimate achievement.

Yet a birthday is not limited to the expression of joy over completing the year past. It must be filled also with sober judgment, weighing one's goals for the next year and determining how best to achieve them. A responsible and ambitious person utilizes this occasion to adopt resolutions for self-improvement, from losing weight to seeing the Alps.

In much the same way, God uses the birthday of Man as the date to conduct an annual review. Each individual is reexamined with this question implicit but ringing: "Should this person be renewed for another year of life?†This is the idea of a "day of trumpeting,†the town crier proclaiming that a trial is being conducted in the town square.

The astrological sign Libra, which appears in the form of the scales of justice, covers the time between September 24 and October 23. The Jewish tradition believes that this symbol was built into creation to show us a tangible image of our status during this period.

When observed against this backdrop, the day of Rosh Hashanah is a nuanced blend of jubilation and trepidation. Even the sounding of the trumpets is straddling the two emotions, declaring victory and voicing doubt at the same time. Another year lived, wow! Another year faced, oh oh!

This year is more noticeably fraught than most. The financial world is in turmoil. Iran marches implacably forward in building the bomb they deny they seek, for the goal of annihilating Israel they admit they seek. The American electoral process has become a hostage to these earth-shaking events.

Rosh Hashanah calls out to every human being, warning of accountability but offering a potential limited only by our inclination to be selfish and small and narrow. If we commit to working hard to make a big difference, next year's version of ourselves may turn out to be the world-beaters we always thought we were meant to become.

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About the Author

Jay D. Homnick, commentator and humorist, is a frequent contributor to The American Spectator.