The term “Rosh Hashanah” does not appear in the Torah. If you look in the Book of Numbers, this is all you will find: “The first day of the seventh month will be Yom Truah, shofar-blowing day.” There is no mention of round challah, chicken soup or gefilte fish. So, how did this innocuous verse develop into a Holy Day that brings thousands of Ottawa’s Jews to synagogues?
As Rabbi Ed Feinstein of Valley Beth Shalom in Encino, California explains in a 2016 Rosh Hashanah sermon (https://tinyurl.com/y96uovng), when our ancestors were exiled to Babylonia in 586 BCE, they were overwhelmed by a man-made mountain in the middle of the imperial capital of Babylon. The ziggurat (Tower of Babel) was called “‘Bab-El, the Gate of God,’ the place where heaven and earth touch.
“On the first of Tishrei, the Babylonian empire celebrated their festival of the New Year by renewing their covenant with Marduk as patron god of the empire… Our ancestors witnessed this rite and were overwhelmed. So they borrowed the festival, washed it clean of its pagan symbols and made it a Jewish holiday, Rosh Hashanah.”
In the Babylonian rite, as Rabbi Feinstein notes, the emperor was crowned as Marduk’s son and the ceremony sanctified the empire’s conquest of the world. On Rosh Hashanah, our tradition crowns no earthly king. We sanctify no empire. However, we do affirm two Jewish commitments: sacred tribalism and sacred globalism.
I am sure there are other explanations for this development, but this one resonates with me. It is easy to see how we massaged the messages of the Babylonian rites and rituals to reflect the worldview of Abraham’s descendants.
We Jews have lived as a tribe since our beginnings. While in North America and post-emancipation Europe we called ourselves a religion, religion is secondary to a much deeper connection – the sense that we belong, that we are responsible for one another, that we share history and destiny, and that we share stories and ways of living. This tribalism is what drives individuals to seek out Erev Shabbat celebrations on cruise ships, and for some to identify all the Jews playing on professional sports teams. Some call it “peoplehood,” or “community,” or “culture,” but in essence, it is tribal affiliation. Our ancestors discovered that while we are born into a tribe, and our identity is nurtured by the tribe, to live exclusively in the tribe, and exclusively for the tribe, becomes stultifying. It creates a narrow world vision and makes it hard to live in the wider world.
Recent decisions of the Israeli government seem to reject this duality of sacred tribalism and sacred globalism. In a brief 10-day period, the Knesset adopted a series of controversial laws that impact on the lives of Arab, Druze, Christian, and LGBTQ citizens of Israel, as well as supporters of democracy, verbal opponents of the government’s policies, and members of the non-orthodox Jewish religious communities.
The Breaking the Silence Law, the Administrative Affairs Courts Law, the amendment to the Surrogacy Law, and the Nation-State law all go to great lengths to place sacred tribalism above sacred globalism. Throughout Israel, hundreds of thousands of Israeli citizens have gathered to protest these laws and demand changes to them, but the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu says these laws are necessary to maintain a Zionist state.
Since the establishment of the State of Israel, it has grappled with the inherent tensions between the dual aspirations of being both a Jewish and democratic state. The new laws appears to tip the balance toward an exclusively Jewish state. The new Nation-State law seems to embrace a nationalism that sees minorities and democratic values as dangerous to the survival of the Jewish state.
The original founders of the State of Israel placed great faith in deeds and actions – and little reliance on words. They were prepared to live with the ambiguity of the Declaration of Independence, sure in their hearts that time and actions would lead them to the middle road between sacred tribalism and sacred globalism.
As we in North America prepare for the High Holy Days, it is important to acknowledge that walking a tightrope is our sacred task. We gather as a tribe to celebrate the miracle of our existence. We act in concert to insure our continued existence. We pledge ourselves to communal obligations and the importance of serving the tribe. Yet, at the exact same moment, we pledge ourselves not to conquer or subjugate humanity, but to serve an ideal of oneness of humanity.