OK, let’s be honest with one another: Despite our advanced intellectual prowess and our eminently rational nature, we Jews do have some pretty strange rituals and customs.
In fact, several of them occur in this coming month of Tishrei. There is tashlich on Rosh Hashana, when we gather at the banks of a body of water and symbolically throw our “sins” – in the form of crumbs or crackers – into the depths, where the fish can eat them. (This may be why our family avoided eating fish for a month after the holidays; after all, who wants to eat their own sins?! Or worse yet, somebody else’s sins?!) And then there is kaparot, another form of “sin-transference,” customarily done on the day preceding Yom Kippur. Right at the top of the politically incorrect column, this tradition – in its original form – involves swinging a loud, squawking chicken around one’s head, and then cutting its throat. Today, most people use coins instead of chickens, donating the money to the poor for use on the holiday. But purists who do it the old-fashioned way can still be found today throughout Bnei Brak and Mea She’arim; just follow the barnyard noise and look for the man with the long knife.
Finally, there is hoshanot, the beating of willows on the synagogue floor at the conclusion of Hoshana Raba, at the end of the Succot festival. This mystical procedure pretty much defies explanation, but it does create one heck of a mess for the shul’s shamas to clean up before the next holiday rolls in.
At one time, I suggested that, in the interest of streamlining these strange ceremonies, we combine all three of the customs by taking a chicken, beating it to death on the floor of the Beit Knesset and then throwing it into the river.
Alas, my proposal was met with, shall we say, derision and disapproval, so I reluctantly retracted it.
At times, it is more the person than the practice that is confounding. I fondly recall when, as a rabbi in the Bible Belt, I received a call from a lady with a deep Southern drawl. “Rabbi,” she said, “I know our religion has some unusual features to it. But what in the name of Jefferson Davis is a ‘Pig in a pen?!’ That don’t hardly sound very Jewish to me!” “Madam,” I replied calmly, “You are apparently referring to a pidyon haben; kindly come to my office and I shall explain it to you – if I can.”
Which brings us, dear reader, to the subject of the impending holy day of Rosh Hashana, known far and wide as the Jewish New Year. This would seem to make sense, wouldn’t it? On this day, God created the world (or He created Man; there is – surprise, surprise – a rabbinic dispute about this). We often declare in our High Holy Day mahzor, just after sounding the Shofar: “Today is the birthday of the world!” And if you needed any further proof, if you take the Hebrew word “Bereishit” – “In the Beginning” and rearrange the letters, you come out with “Alef B’Tishrei” – the first day of the month of Tishrei.
So far, this seems rather clear and straightforward.
But then comes along the Torah and tells us that, no, Tishrei is not the first month of the year. In fact, it is the seventh; the real beginning of our calendar is the month of Nisan! Huh? How could that be? How could the world have been created a half-year down the road?! The answer, of course, is that we Jews have two “firsts”: The creation of the world at large, and the creation of the Jewish people as a nation. So cataclysmic and crucial was that latter event that history, as it were, started anew the moment we emerged from slavery and were crowned the Nation of Israel.
That may be why we refer to this coming week’s event as “Rosh” Hashana - the head of the year - and not “T’hilat” Hashana, the start of the year. The head came first, chronologically; but the body – as in the Jewish body politic – followed only later.
It is perfectly fitting that our “second first” occurred in the month of Nisan.
“Nisan” has two important meanings: First, the root word nes
Obviously, many manifold miracles surrounded our entrance into Peoplehood: the Ten Plagues, the splitting of the sea, the manna in the desert, etc.
But more than that, it indicates that we are a miraculous people at every point in our history. We have done things that no other nation in history has ever done: We have returned to our ancestral homeland, we have re-established our almost-dead language, we have integrated Jews from dozens of cultures and backgrounds into one, cohesive (or basically cohesive) state. And we have defied all the odds, time after time, in warding off established, numerically superior hostile neighbors who are determined to eradicate us from the map of the Middle East.
None of this, of course, makes a whole lot of sense – until and unless Heavenly miracles are factored into the equation.
But the word “nes” has a second meaning as well.
It can be translated as “standard”; that is, the pole on which a flag is placed. On a moral and spiritual level, the State of Israel is the “standard-bearer” of the community of nations. We lead the way in acts of kindness and benevolent good works; just ask the injured Syrian refugees who found life-saving treatment in our hospitals, or the many children from around the world who received a new lease on life in our complimentary “Save a Child’s Heart” foundation. Or the ungrateful Stephen Hawking who would not be able to speak without the help of Israeli technology.
We fight bitter wars, but we never sink to the degraded level of our antagonists.
They aim specifically for civilians; we do everything in our power to spare the innocent. They sacrifice their own children, we do all we can to shelter the young. They prey upon the weak and defenseless, hiding underground like rats, emerging only to perpetrate a public beheading or two; we openly proclaim our desire to find a peaceful solution and an end to bloodshed.
As Rosh Hashana approaches, and the Day of Judgment calls us before the dock of justice, we remember that, no matter what verdict is pronounced upon us, we will have another New Year, another chance to right the wrongs and start anew. By re-ordering our calendar in the spring – when new life begins to re-emerge from the Earth – we are sending the message that people – whole nations, in fact – always possess the power of regeneration.
Israel did it, after many centuries of national dormancy, and individuals can do it, too, re-ordering our personal lives in either the fall or the spring.
May the New Years – the plural is not a typo – bring blessing, joy and peace to the Jewish people, and the entire world.The writer is director of the Jewish Outreach Center of Ra’anana; email@example.com.