Los Angeles Jewish Home's Blog

Based on My Sermon for the First Day of Rosh Hashanah — Letter from the Rabbi

A few weeks ago I heard a wise and learned rabbi say something that really made me think. How odd, he said, that Judaism gives us first Rosh Hashanah, the New Year, and then Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement! First we celebrate the New Year with apples and honey, and then after just a few days, we spoil the celebration by having to repent and ask forgiveness of all we did wrong the previous year.

Wouldn't it be better to do it the other way around? Shouldn't we first seek atonement, and then — cleansed and joyful — enter into the celebration of the beginning of a fresh new year? Certainly that would make good sense; but there is another way of looking at the sequence, which adds extra power to these High Holy Days.

A major aspect of Rosh Hashanah is celebrating the creation of the world. As the prayer book says, Hayom harat olam — today is the birthday of the world. So let us on this day contemplate and celebrate the beauty and wonder of the world God has created:
  • A world where we can look after our environment, so that the atmosphere is free from pollution, the air is clean, and the seas are pure.
  • A world where rain is abundant in its due season; where rivers flow full but safe within their riverbanks, irrigating the land and giving human and animal alike plentiful and pure life-giving water.
  • A world where people and nations pursue justice, so that every person in the world has his or her share to eat, access to drinking water, and safe shelter.
  • A world where rulers and governments are wise and just, assuring a decent and good life for all their citizens.
  • A world where women, and people of all sexual orientations and races and religions, are treated honorably and with equality.
  • A world where immigrants seeking safety and a good life are respected and enabled to play their part in society.
  • A world where war is unknown, as nations know the value of seeking peace and cooperation with their neighbors.
  • A world where people have an overwhelming desire to spread happiness and to be compassionate and protective to others.
Just describing this world makes me feel so good, that I want to praise God and to say to everyone; what a wonderful world we live in! ... Wait a minute though! did that sound anything remotely like the world we know? or was it more a description of an idealized Garden of Eden? We have only to contemplate the actual world we live in, and compare it with the world we all know it should be — the world I have just described — to know what a gulf there is between the two.

I understand the creation story as God's gift of a potentially wonderful world. Just as we human beings, created in God's image, have the potential to be so much more than we often manage to be, so too the world is only a beginning of what it could be. Let us, on this Rosh Hashanah, this birthday of the world, celebrate that potentially wonderful world, with an honest recognition of all the ways it falls short.

At this season, we are not only celebrating, we also are starting the process that culminates on the day of Atonement, a process of looking at what we have achieved, both personally and collectively, and what we have failed to achieve; what we have done for the good of the world, and the negative things we have done that contribute to the world's shortcomings. Every act we do or don't do makes a difference to the health of the world we are passing to our children and grand-children.

As well as enjoying the good and the love in our lives, and wishing each other a new year filled with sweetness and good, we can hold in mind that idealized picture of the world, and know that it is within the power of every one of us to move this imperfect world an inch or two towards that beautiful potential.

Rabbi Anthony Elman Rabbi Anthony Elman is the Skirball Director of Spiritual Life at the Jewish Home and also serves as Rabbi of the Home's Grancell Village campus. His professional background is multifaceted, encompassing the fields of law, social work, and psychotherapy. Rabbi Elman has been with the Home since his ordination and graduation from the Academy for Jewish Religion-California in May 2007

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