Growing up as a barely-connected Jew in America, I saw Judaism as a self-serving, self-centered, ghetto-based religion and culture that cares not about the world around it, but rather on the self-preservation and success of its own people alone. Jews for Jews. Oy! Not such a good image, huh?
Then, at the age of 22, I was hozer b’teshuvah (became religious) after a 3-year spiritual journey led me to far-away lands, a colorful array of interesting and wise people and all kinds of books, guided by deep questioning and yearnings for answers to life’s biggest questions. A journey that culminated with me arriving in the holy city of Tzfat in northern Israel and sitting and learning Torah for the first time in my life. As I sat over ancient texts and learned with rabbis who looked like they just stepped out of a shtetl in Eastern Europe, I was both shocked and impressed that my stereotype and understanding of this nearly 4,000-year-old tradition was completely wrong.
I began to see that, despite the very particular, very Jewish aspects of Judaism, such as Shabbat, tefillin, kashrut and many other ritual-based traditions, Judaism had a universal vision that went far beyond its own communities and self-interests. In fact, at the deepest levels, even the particular, Jewishy parts of Judaism really have the entire world in mind.
It’s called tikkun olam, as many people are familiar with. The ancient, essential and central Jewish belief that we are here in this world to bring fixing to the brokenness of our world. To create a reality in which all people, not just Jewish people, can experience a life free of pain and suffering, a life filled with deep happiness and meaning. And whether we are involved with direct actions of social action like giving a homeless person tzedakah or a hungry person something to eat, or involved with religious rituals such as saying a blessing over our own food or lighting Shabbat candles, the Jewish tradition has been hard at work for thousands of years trying to bring healing, both physically and spiritually, to a world in need.
When we look at early Jewish history we see the laying of the foundations of this universal vision by and through our ancient ancestors.
Whether it’s Avraham and Sarah being brought to a land that is located in the center of the world so as to have a positive influence on those living there and, more importantly, passing through. (Genesis, Chapter 12)
Or it’s Moses and his inner social activist which does not allow him to sit idly by while people are treating others wrongly, whether it involves his own people or not. It’s interesting to note that immediately after these powerful moments of social justice enacted, he is chosen to be the leader of the Jewish people. (Exodus, Chapter 2-3)
Or it’s King Solomon inaugurating the First Temple with an eloquent speech that beseeches God to hear the Jewish people’s prayers in this holy place and then, in the same breath, asks that same God to also listen to the prayers of people from all nations in that same holy place, so that the universal vision of the Judaism can become manifest. (I Kings, Chapter 8)
It’s awesome. Simply awesome.
It’s a different look at or understanding of the Jewish tradition than most of us hear from our learned teachers and leaders. But it’s the real deal. The original Jewish model and design.
And Rosh Hashanah, specifically, comes to remind me of this every year.
As I prepare myself for this holiest and awe-some of days by learning inspiring teachings about the day, I always come upon the simple teaching that opens us up to the greatest Rosh Hashanah secret there is:
That this very Jewish holiday with its very Jewish apples and honey and its very Jewish prayers and shofar blasts is, in its truest essence, a holiday, a holy day, for the entire world. For every Jew, every Muslim, every Christian and every Buddhist, every Hindu and every atheist, and every neo-pagan-Wicca-teenage girl trying to break out of the suffocating mold of her very boring suburban bubble.
As it says in the Mishnah, the world gets judged for various things at various points in the year. On Sukkot, it’s for water. On Pesach, it’s for the produce of the field. And on Shavuot, it’s for the fruit that comes from the trees. All things vital to our physical nourishment and survival.
But on Rosh Hashanah, the Mishnah teaches us that the judging goes internal. And not only for the Jews, but for the entire world. We learn that “ALL who have come into this world” pass in front of the Creator for a brief, but infinite one-on-one moment. Not just members of the Jewish tribe, but members of all the world’s tribes. We could, and usually do, think of this as a moment in which we are being judged by the Great and Scary Judge of the Universe who remembers every single little thing that we did wrong this past year, including the times we let a curse word slip out of our mouths in front of our kids (that just happened to me two weeks ago!) or the times we passed by a person in need and we didn’t take the time out of our go-go-go lives to help.
But I like to understand this “judgment moment” not as a dreaded or scary experience but rather as a golden opportunity to have an encounter with our truest selves. With our greatest selves. As if that judgment moment is nothing more than God holding up a mirror and, as an ideal parent would do, saying nothing, but rather allowing us to see a reflection looking back at us of who we can be in this world. Who we came into this world to be. And, in that image smiling at us, we see the things we have done this past year that have pulled us away from our true-life path as well as those things that have brought us closer.
And this is something that not only the Jews need or can benefit from. This moment of deep personal and life check-in is essential for the whole world if it is to function in a healthy way. Something necessary if the world is going to actually progress and become a better place for all life on this planet. And Judaism understands that. Maybe all Jews don’t understand this, but Judaism itself definitely does.
And once we go through this process of deep seeing, we can begin the new year with a renewed and heightened sense of understanding and purpose as well as hope. With that new vision, we can then turn to our left and turn to our right and understand that everyone else around us also has their unique purpose for being here, their unique mission to fulfill. That they, too, just like us, were made b’tzelem Elohim, in the “image of God”, and are trying, just like us, their best to become their fullest and truest selves.
This, I believe, is the grand vision of Rosh Hashanah and the eternal and universal message of the Jewish tradition.
And that’s why this Rosh Hashanah I am adding a new siman (symbolic food) to our festive dinner table. Playing off of the tradition of eating foods with names that correlate to blessings and good tidings for the new year, I am adding the good ‘ol onion. Yup, the onion. Not because it’s sweet and not because it’s particularly tasty. But rather, because in Hebrew, the word for onion is batzal. And upon eating it, I will ask for God’s help to, this year, really see and to really understand that ALL of the people of this great, big and diverse world are created “BATZAL-im Elohim”. In the image of God. Just like me.