All of us think of Rosh Hashanah as one of the great festivals of the Jewish year: the apple and honey, the rich melodies, the raw call of the shofar. Yet the Torah says virtually nothing about its themes, calling it simply ‘a day of teruah, sounding the horn’, before moving on to describe all the other major festivals in considerable detail.
It was the rabbis of the Mishnah and Talmud who determined that this was to be the festival of ‘the birthday of the world’, though even that ‘fact’ was left in debate: was the world actually made in the autumn or the spring? The Talmud couldn’t decide. But our prayers, as the commentators note, follow the former view, no doubt in quiet agreement with Keats in his Ode to Autumn: ‘Where are the songs of spring? Aye, where are they? / Thou has thy beauties too.’ Thus we celebrate the world’s birthday amidst the falling leaves, the chestnuts and the apple harvest.
The essence of celebrating creation is ‘to proclaim God sovereign’, as the Talmud declares: ‘Say before me on the New Year prayers of sovereignty so that you make me your king.’
But what does ‘declaring God sovereign actually mean? The works of the great theologians help me to think about this question. But my real response comes from closer at hand, the engagement of my senses and intuitions with the world before me, with its sights, fragrances and sounds. That God fills the infinite spaces of the ever-expanding universe is not a notion I can fathom; but that there is something special, stirring, even sacred, in the call of the owl I hear when I go running at night; that the flowing waters of a stream sing of the inexplicable and inexhaustible life which nourishes the grass, the animals and the human soul alike, so that I can be transformed within moments of hearing them from feeling depleted and dispirited to experiencing silent, grateful joy, – these matters I know with all my heart. Here is where I intuit that there is life which fills all life, that ‘One motion and one spirit rolls through all things’, that the invisible, indivisible energy and vitality to which, by way of shorthand, I give the name ‘God’ truly is, and is in all things. As I absorb, and am absorbed, into this reality, intuitively, without words and affirmations, my inner being proclaims God sovereign over my life.
What does this entail? It’s not just a sentimental moment, a pleasant spiritual aside from the true business of seizing life’s opportunities. Rather it is relationship, commitment, responsibility. It is relationship, because I seek this presence of God, not for any extrinsic benefits it may bring, but rather because, as a gardener loves the dew and rain which keeps the plants from dying, so I need to feel connected with the life force which feeds my heart and prevents my soul from drying out.
It is commitment, because the intuitive experience of connection with and love for life brings with it a responsibility to care for life. At times the love of life can be such that the thought of hurting life even in so small a manifestation as a bird or dragonfly, let alone in so great a concern as the feelings and wellbeing of other human beings, appears as a great sin, leaving a sense of individual and collective unworthiness and the desire to make good.
What does it mean to ‘proclaim God sovereign’? The issue isn’t whether God in heaven knows we’ve performed with adequate ceremony on the New Year, but how we hear God in our own hearts, through the many and varied voices of life, and how that awareness inspires us, chastens us and directs our deeds.