Being back in synagogue after roller coasting through one news cycle to the next and one tragedy to the other, one thing is clear: our previous belief that the world is in our control is gone. Systems we thought we dominated, contingency plans we thought could always be pulled out, and data thought would always be at our disposal are not.
Sometimes, looking at all the bad news, it is easy to despair. After all, how can we fix problems that are plaguing the entirety of humanity? We wonder if there is anything we can do to fix the many broken aspects plaguing our world.
Yet there is one idea that offers hope, a belief that puts some light at the end of this very dark tunnel—us gathering here, marking Rosh Hashana. The very concept of Rosh Hashana offers a key to bringing our world out of the depths into which it had sunk.
Many refer to Rosh Hashana as the Jewish new year. That is the farthest thing from what this holiday is all about. Sure, Rosh Hashana is the first day in the Jewish calendar year, yet Rosh Hashana is the most universal holiday the world has ever seen. On Rosh Hashana, Jews pray for the fate of the world as a whole. We believe that on this day, the future of humanity and earth itself is decided. With no parallel anywhere else, on Rosh Hashana, we metacognitize about the fate of the entire world. If there is anything the past two years have taught us, it is that the world needs more of a Rosh Hashana mentality.
The ancient text of the Mishna, written in the first century C.E., states: “on Rosh Hashanah, all creatures pass in front of God like sheep being counted” (tractate Rosh Hashana, chapter 1).
This powerful statement reminds us how every one of us is personally accountable and judged for our actions—for good and for bad. It is the culmination of a belief in personal responsibility. Yet Rosh Hashana is not just about humanity as individuals.
In the prayers for Rosh Hashana, also written in the Mishnaic era, we say: “and on the countries, it will be decided, which is to war, which is to peace, which to famine, and which to plentifulness, and the fate of creatures will be decided to life and to death.”
Speaking about the fate of the entire world being sealed is not to take ourselves down a path of despair or determinism—both the antithesis of Judaism—but rather to remind ourselves we do not live in a vacuum. We remind ourselves that we cannot pray for our own well-being without praying for the fate of the entire world.
The spirit of a universally shared fate reaches its culmination in the prayer of U’netaneh Tokef, attributed to Rabbi Amnon of Mayence, Germany.
“On Rosh Hashanah will be inscribed and on Yom Kippur will be sealed – how many will pass from the earth and how many will be created; who will live and who will die; who will die after a long life and who before his time; who by water and who by fire, who by sword and who by beast, who by famine and who by thirst, who by upheaval and who by plague….”
Sure, we all have so much to worry about for ourselves, our families, and our communities. Yet on Rosh Hashana, we recognize that our fate cannot be sealed without discussing the fate of the entire world. The understanding of our shared collective fate is why the world needs this holiday now more than ever.
If there is anything we should have learned from the events of the past two years, it is that we swim together or sink together. A virus originating halfway around the world can, within a matter of days, travel to every country around the world. Whether or not we choose to wear a mask as individuals will affect society’s ability to overcome a pandemic and keep children safe; if individuals decide to get vaccinated, society can begin to overcome disease and sickness. We have learned that our individual choices affect the availability of ICU beds and the ability of schools to open in our community. The same is true for the challenges for climate, global health, and other challenges facing our world.
Now more than ever, our world needs a Rosh Hashanah. Not just a day in which we pray for ourselves and our families, but a day in which we pray for the whole world. There is a Jewish tradition that the world was created on Rosh Hashana and is reevaluated every year on this day. Let us pray that we grow a more collective conciseness and pray for a world that needs healing and will not heal without all of us coming together.
I am reminded of people like Lilian Wald, who came from an affluent German American family in Cincinnati, Ohio. Instead of leading a comfortable life, she headed to New York’s Lower East Side, where she founded the Henry Street Settlement. By 1913 she had 92 poeple on staff, established America’s first traveling nurses progremm, and brought forth an Amendment in the U.S. Constitution banning child labor. She also recognized the need for children to have a place to play and led the Playground Movement, demanding that cities build playgrounds for children.
So how do we go about being those people committed to the betterment of our world?
I think of people like Victor Shine from Brooklyn.
It was in the middle of August this year when the Jewish community of Brooklyn got the frighting news: a 6-year-old child—Yosef Shapiro—went missing. He had gone on a trip with his day camp to the beach in Canarsie, and only when the kids came home did his parents realize he was missing. Thousands of residents mobilized to search for Yosef along the beach, but he could not be found. In an interview, Victor Shine shared that when he got the message asking people to volunteer and look, he was not planning on going. “How can I, an old man, help out?!”. He then asked himself: “if this would be my grandchild, would I go.” Victor joined the efforts and wondered on the beach, calling out: “Yosef, come home we have pizza.” Suddenly, he heard from the bushes a voice saying: “Ta?” (Dad). He alerted the police, who searched that location and found Yosef late in the evening. It is likely he would not live to see the next day without this intervention.
Victor reflected and said: “The lesson is, you don’t have to “be the guy” to be the guy.
How do we get that inspiration?
The answer can be found in the very same prayer of Zichronot we invoke. “Ve’Gam Et Noach Be’ahava Zacharta—you remembered Noah with love”.
Humanity has failed God; there was little reason for optimism. Why did God decide to give Noah another chance? Because of God’s love for Noah and humanity. God remembered Noah with love.
As we approach a new year and a very broken world, there is no one who will give us the time we had lost. The theme of creation has been far truer in previous years than it is this year. We know there is a great deal of work ahead of us. On this Rosh Hashana more than others, we focus on the theme of Noach– Ve’Gam Et Noach Be’ahava Zacharta—you remembered Noah with love”.
What can we do to help rebuild a broken world—be’ahava, with love. That is how the world begins to heal. With love and remembering that you don’t have to be the guy to be the guy. Shana Tova.