The liturgical content of the celebration of Rosh Hashanah is too great to be able to reflect deeply upon in such a small space. However, I think that among so many important themes, it is possible to suggest some ideas to motivate this great moment of liturgical experience.
If the 1st month of the year, called Nissan in which Pesach is celebrated, marks the beginning of the harvest, the seventh month, of Tishri, in which it celebrates Rosh Hashanah, marks the time of the approaching rains, the time to close the granary with the harvested products of the year and restart the new cycle of life. In the Bible, festivals and liturgy are linked to the cycle of nature, from planting to harvest. Therefore, the Rosh Hashanah liturgy shows that the apparent final time is a bearer of hope for the new life that must arise. And so, the liturgy reminds us that it is a propitious time for a review of life. The liturgy of the month of Elul, which precedes Tishri, motivates the people of Israel to prepare for the end of a time and creates an atmosphere of waiting for the new to come.
The blowing of the Shofar (an important moment in the Rosh Hashanah liturgy) draws attention to this privileged time of turning to God (doing Teshuva) and bringing hope, above all, in the mercy of God (God who remembers). It is the period when God is, so to speak, most propitious to welcome those who make their way back to Him.
The Torah reading (Gen. 21) marks the action of God as the Only Creator and Lord of history. From the seemingly impossible reality, God gives birth to new life. Sarah and Abraham are already at an advanced age, they couldn’t have more children. This fact can be compared to the cycle of the year that comes to an end. God visits Sarah and she gives birth to her son Yitzhak. Through this action, God makes the new happen and eternalizes His promise in the formation of His people for all of humanity. The Bible reading teaches us that from a lifeless reality God gives rise to a new beginning.
The Haftarah (I Sam 1:1-2:10) is in perfect harmony with the Torah reading in which Hannah in her old age is also visited by God and has her son, Samuel, and therefore a new life began. In this context, the Midrash Bereshit Rabbah 73:1 teaches that on Rosh Hashanah God remembers the merits of Patriarchs and Matriarchs and according to Rabbi Eleazar it is precisely on the day of Rosh Hashanah that God visited Sarah, Rachel, and Hannah and they had their children by the mercy of God. What was counted as the end of the journey, a life without hope, God renews, gives new life, and ensures continuity for them.
Rosh Hashanah is not, therefore, a natural act, in which one time follows another, but it is a time for God’s intervention where the end becomes the beginning: the bearer of a new creation or a new creature.
May the new Jewish year 5782 be a bearer of hope in a hopeless world and may people like Sarah, Rachel, and Hannah recognise themselves as creatures before God, the Only Creator of the Universe and source of all life.
Happy New Year! Shanah Tovah! Hag Sameah
This week’s Parasha Commentary was prepared by
Elio Passeto, NDS, Israel, ISPS-Ratisbonne: Director