Why Did Rosh Hashanah Become So Important?

Quick Comment: Parashat Emor, (Leviticus 21-24)

In the Torah where Holy days and festivals are listed (Leviticus 23), there are only two sentences about Rosh Hashanah. Why does such an important occasion in Jewish life get so little space?

It is fair to assume that when writing involved engraving words into stone or writing each letter on parchment that the amount of space a subject received was indicative of its importance. Clearly, Rosh Hashanah was once a minor observance.

But now, Wow! Architects designed many of our sanctuaries to expand to provide more space for the Rosh Hashanah (and, Yom Kippur) crowds.

We rabbis do everything we can to lure people in during the year. But on Rosh Hashanah many communities print tickets to keep non-members out.

Two Historical Events

Our liturgy indicates why Rosh Hashanah has become so important. Our daily and Shabbat services mention only two historical events: the creation of the world and the Exodus from Egypt. Kiddush (Shabbat blessing over wine) also only mentions the creation and the Exodus.

Now Passover in which more Jews participate than any other event during the year grandly celebrates the Exodus.

But we also needed a big occasion to celebrate the ideals taught in Genesis’ magnificent Story of Creation.

The story tells us nothing scientific about HOW the world was created but so much about WHY!

God created the world with purpose and meaning and set us human beings to be in charge of and responsible for the world.

God gave us awesome power. We are the only creatures who can do brain surgery, but we are the only ones who make bombs and bullets to kill and maim.

Our Sages wisely perceived that we needed an event to remind us to use our power prudently. That is why Rosh Hashanah became the important festival that it is!

An Older White Man’s Message to Angry Young Blacks in Baltimore

This message may mean nothing to you. But long ago my little league coach said it is better to swing and miss than take a called third strike.

As I studied to become a rabbi, I was also taught: One who saves a single life is regarded as though he or she had saved the whole world.

So if just one of you resonates to these words, I will be happy. If not then at least I took my cut.

The circumstances under which many of you have grown up are beyond awful! The instances of police use of excessive force against black males in 2015 alone are ample evidence that the system is in urgent need of fixing. It is awful! I share your frustration and your anger.

But I know that we have made some progress.

 Freddie Gray’s assailants have been indicted! When I was growing up there were no black mayors or black police commissioners in any large cities, let alone a Black President of the United States.

Yes, there has been progress, but we still have such a long way to go!

As we move forward, each of you has a choice. You can be part of the ongoing problem. Or you can be part of the solution. Your call!

Your lives matter!

Each of you has talents, abilities and energy! You must choose how to use them.

You have a choice!

You can learn as much as you can, develop the talent that God has given you—and find ways to use that talent to make a better world. Or you can succumb to the despair, poverty, hopelessness, crime and anger that surround you.

Think about it!

What if all the energy and time that went into looting and destroying in recent days had gone into clearing a vacant lot, planting trees and flowers and creating a park?

Yes, we make choices and must live with them, but here’s the thing: The choices you made in the past don’t have to determine the choices you make in the future. If you have done good, you can choose to continue to do so. If you’ve done bad you can do better.

God does not make that choice for you, but I believe God is intensely interested in the choices you make!

 I believe that the Bible in the Book of Deuteronomy (Chapter 30, verse 15-19) is speaking to each and every one of us: “See I have set before you this day life and goodness, death and evil … Therefore choose LIFE, that you and those who come after you may live.”

Yes, there is so much negative stuff in your lives that you did not create and that you cannot control. My heart weeps at the thought. But you have to decide whether you will use those horrible realities as an excuse to make them worse or as a spur to make them better.

I believe with all my heart that God cares what you do with the gifts you have been given. Life and death, good and evil are before you! The choice is yours!

Rabbi Stephen Lewis Fuchs is the author of, What’s in It for Me? Finding Ourselves in Biblical Narratives. He is the former President of the World Union for Progressive Judaism and Rabbi Emeritus of Congregation Beth Israel, West Hartford, CT