Erev Rosh Hashanah 5779
September 9, 2018
Rabbi Joseph M. Forman
I love the holidays. Especially Hanukkah.
Wait a second, Rabbi. Did you say Hanukkah? It’s Rosh Hashanah!
Yes, I did. Hanukkah is a great holiday. It is a celebration of religious freedom marking the victory of the Maccabees over the Greco Assyrians more than 2000 years ago. What’s not to celebrate? Well, actually, Hanukkah is a bit more complicated than that. And they have a lot to do with our celebration of Rosh Hashanah.
You see, the Maccabees were religious zealots. And not all of the Jews shared their religious practices. There were other Jews living among them who embraced the Greek influences around them. The Maccabees, though, rejected Greek culture and refused to assimilate. Ultimately, when the Temple in Jerusalem was desecrated by the Assyrians, a war broke out …which the Maccabees won! You know the story.
But what you might not know is that in a strange twist of history, we observe Hanukkah with rituals derived from Greek ideas. Some of the words in the three blessings composed by the rabbis who lived generations after the Maccabees,…some of those words have their origins in the very culture that led to the Hanukkah story.
The first blessing tells that we are commanded by God to Kindle the Hanukkah lights. This was a newly invented ritual that most certainly would not have been welcomed by those traditionalist religious zealots. The second blessing invokes the miracles performed for our ancestors “at that season.”
The Hebrew states:
She’asa nisim la’avoteinu bayamin ha’heim baz-man ha zeh.
And the third blessing, recited only on the first night, is the familiar Shehecheyanu prayer, thanking God for giving us life and enabling us to reach a momentous occasion: v’higiyanu laz-man ha zeh.
How ironic those blessings are! Why? We’ll come back to that in a moment. First, a little history on tonight’s holiday, Rosh Hashanah.
It’s in the book of Leviticus that we initially learn of a sacred day called Yom Teruah, a day of loud blasts. This holy day is to take place on the first day of the 7th month. That’s tonight. There is no mention of Rosh Hashanah in Leviticus nor anywhere in the entire Bible! And there is no mention of Yom Teruah, the day of loud blasts, being the New Year. All that came much later.
What emerged over time was the linking of Yom Teruah with the spiritual New Year — or in Hebrew, Rosh Hashanah. And then Rosh Hashanah became linked with the story of creation. So now, today, on the first day of the 7th month, when the sun sets and the moon disappears completely from the night sky, we celebrate the New Year and mark the event with the blowing of the shofar. Measuring the passage of time using the phases of the moon or the arc of the sun in the sky has been part of Jewish time-keeping since Biblical days.
Keeping time, in the Jewish tradition, is important for knowing when Shabbat begins. We use the hours to mark the days. And using the moon, marking its disappearance, is helpful for knowing when the month begins — or the New Year. Jewish time is time measured with a correspondence to celestial events. When the sun sets, the day is over. When the moon is new, the months change.
Greek time, however, is different. The Greeks had two concepts and two words for time: Chronos and Kairos. Chronos, which we might call clock time, measures the hour — or the sun. Very much like Jewish time.
Kairos, though, is special time. It is the kind of time you spend when a good time is had by all, or when it’s time to do something important. Kairos time does not have an hour or a day or a month to indicate it has arrived. It doesn’t correspond to any celestial event. Kairos is the kind of time that is defining, sacred and profound because we deem it so. It corresponds not to heavenly spheres, but to human endeavors.
Now back to those Hanukkah blessings. Shehecheyanu, v’kiyamanu, v’higianu laz-man ha zeh. We have arrived at this time — LAZ-MAN ha ZEH our prayer declares. But to what kind of time does ZE-MAN refer?
To answer that we might look to our sources, but the word Zeman only occurs four times in the entire Bible, and each of those instances is from three of the last books composed.
The Rabbis chose to use the Hebrew word Zeman instead of other Hebrew words they had for time, because they wanted to express TIME in the same way that the Greeks used Kairos. Zeman is a momentous occasion not because the sun set, but because it is a moment that is transformational. And so on Hanukkah and every instance when we recite the Shehecheyanu prayer, we borrow a bit of the Greek idea of Kairos, time not measured by clocks, but measured by our own sense of the sacred.
We commemorate births and weddings and Bar and Bat Mitzvahs and Confirmations, and we call each of them significant events — significant because, to us, they are! And at each of those moments we recite the Shehecheyanu prayer.
And now Rosh Hashanah is upon us. The sun has set, the moon is new and so is the month. Celestial time calls this the New Year — for the earth.
But what of us? The relative motion of the sun and moon alone don’t make this a holy day for us. We need a different measure of time to mark this as a sacred occasion. We need to deem it sacred for ourselves!
Every week Shabbat comes and goes. And perhaps we acknowledge it. And every year Rosh Hashanah returns. And here we are again, marking its arrival.
But how shall each of us make this a sacred moment — sacred for us? What will make this day special in our own lives? What will we do or say or experience that will transform a heavenly New Year into a personal one?
There is a story about President Abraham Lincoln, who, during the Civil War, was known to attend church on Wednesday evenings. Lincoln and a friend of his were walking back to the White House, and the president’s companion asked him what he thought of the sermon. “Well,” Lincoln responded, “it was brilliant, well conceived, Biblical, relevant and well presented….but it failed.”
“How so?” his friend inquired. Lincoln did not hesitate:
“It did not ask us to do something great.”
If our Rosh Hashanah is to be the auspicious occasion that we desire it to be, then we must elevate our own lives and the lives of every human being. We must make of this day a sacred occasion by committing ourselves to something worthy of Lincoln’s challenge.
This New Year can be transformative for us — it can be a special time for us if we but challenge ourselves. Unlike the moon that effortlessly is renewed, each one of us must commit to the difficult work of our renewal.
Shehecheyanu, v’kiyamanu, v’higianu laz-man ha zeh.
We have been given life, we have been sustained and now we have arrived at this sacred time. May it be a New Year of blessings, of peace — for the good.