Happy birthday, world

Three times in the major service of Rosh Hashanah, Mussaf, each time the shofar is blown, we say, “Today is the birthday of the world.”

If we look back on our childhoods, birthdays were special because we were the center of attention. Usually there was cake, candles and, best of all, presents. Those of us who are older are perhaps less enthusiastic about birthdays. Either we feel we’ve outgrown them, or we are old enough not to want to think about them too much. Yet there still is a sense of some sort of achievement and even excitement on reaching “special birthdays” as we enter our “round number” years, especially in the seventies, eighties, and with some luck and good genes, nineties.

And, wow, if we become centenarians! In such cases, the spirit of birthdays past rises again, and singing “Happy Birthday” brings back that old sense of specialness we felt as kids.

Our world is no youngster. Unfortunately, we, her children, aren’t making life easier for her. Some of us have taken a carpe diem approach to her: Take what we can get from Mother Earth now, and to hell with the future. But some of us have children and grandchildren, and we want them to have good, happy, and healthy lives. Is that what they will have if we do not conserve resources on their behalf? What kind of air will they breathe and what kind of water will they drink if we don’t celebrate the birth of the world properly?

This year we have watched the devastation that changing and changed weather patterns have wreaked. I have been to the Barrier Reef, where I saw with my own eyes how natural beauty is crumbling due to warmed seas killing the coral. The Arctic ice is melting with collateral damage to the fauna that live there. Will my great-grandchildren ever see a polar bear? Worse, will they be able to live on a waterlogged, smog-covered Earth that no longer supports their lives?

Judaism cannot be about just the prayer and ritual that occupies so much of our time this season. Acknowledging God as Creator and ourselves as God’s stewards is as much a part of being religious and observant as blowing the shofar is.

If any holy day of this season speaks to our responsibility to the home we have been given, it is Sukkot, which, if properly observed, thrusts us into the heart of nature for a week. Those who choose the lulav (palm branch), etrog (citron), myrtle, and willows for the observance of the holy day spend considerable time and effort closely examining the details of these plants’ form. This should encourage us to look as carefully at the state of nature in general, and if we see something that is presently pasul (invalid for use), we should put in the effort to make it not merely kasher (fit), but mehudar (special and beautiful).

So, this Rosh Hashanah, this holiday season, let us say “Happy Birthday, World,” and commit to making the world a happy place to be in. Let us commit to observing the commandment of bal tashchit — the prohibition on waste of useful resources — by recycling, supporting efforts toward sustainability, clean air, and potable water. Doing this is as much of a mitzvah as putting on tefillin, keeping a kosher home, or attending synagogue on a regular basis.

If we do our part well enough, the donations we make to federations or other Jewish and non-Jewish organizations when so-called natural disasters take place will be replaced by the natural gifts a properly preserved Mother Earth will deliver.

In this way we will not only recreate a whole and healthy Earth, we will bring forth an all-encompassing Judaism that embraces the particular observances of our people as well as compassion for all of God’s creations. For just as we are commanded to observe the rituals of our faith, so too we are commanded to imitate God: “Just as God is merciful and gracious, so too should you be merciful and gracious” (Yalkut Shimoni). And the world needs our compassion as never before, so we can keep wishing her happy birthday.

About the Author
Rabbi Michael Chernick holds a doctorate in rabbinic literature and semikhah from Yeshiva University. He served as professor of rabbinic literature at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion for forty years.He is an oleh hadash with continuing close ties to the United States. Rabbi Chernck regards himself as "a Jew for all Jews."
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