Leshanah Tovah, may this be a good and worthwhile year.
However late it comes in the secular year, Rosh Hashanah always arrives in a rush and it’s hard to feel ready. Also, its themes can feel hard to grasp, – unlike Yom Kippur with its focus on apology and forgiveness. So for the next three days I’m writing a short reflection on the central subjects of the Rosh Hashanah prayers to help us reflect and prepare.
Hayom harat olam – Today is the birthday of the world.
Rosh Hashanah celebrates creation and God as its ruler: God is Melech, King, and Sovereign over all the earth.
Though I did cry watching the royal wedding several years ago, I’m not moved by images of palaces and power in the way our ancestors maybe were. Nor do I believe in a God who owns and directs the proceedings of the world in any obvious manner. I am not sure either that the earth has a birthday.
Yet these ideas speak to me powerfully. They go to the heart of what matters in life, of why life matters at all.
For the world is full of joy, as well as cruelty. Few people tire of the sight of a robin alighting close to one’s hand, or of a glimpse of the new moon, or the sound of a stream, or the call of a lamb, because there’s beauty in such things. In a civilisation constantly focussed on ownership, on what is ‘mine’ and ‘yours’, these things don’t belong to us. We neither possess them nor control the moments when we are blessed to witness them.
They speak to me of God; not of a God who is a giant ‘He’ or ‘She’, but of the infinite life which unveils itself in these small mysteries of being, a bird, a river or a poem. The vitality which flows through them and all things is sacred. To it alone everything belongs.
This is what the words ‘God is Sovereign of all the earth’ mean to me. No doubt they mean something different to you, and to each of us, because life unfolds its mysteries around us all in variant ways.
This view of life is more than just a pleasant thought. It commands. For, though we cannot claim ownership of life’s mysteries, we do have the capacity, almost infinite capacity, to destroy them. As a species we are adept at hurtfulness, exploitation and killing, both wantonly and by negligence.
In celebrating creation, in naming a date on which to honour it, we commit ourselves to abjuring cruelty and destruction. Instead we promise to honour life, all life, to the best of our ability in all our deeds.
That is the heart of what Rosh Hashanah is about, and every other day as well.