Happy birthday, world. That is, we are now approaching Rosh Hashanah, the "head" or first of the year, the anniversary of the world's creation, so our tradition tells us. But it's not the sort of birthday celebration we might think of right away.
No cakes, no candles, no happy little songs. Birth is noisy, messy, and painful. Birth is vulnerability and frailty, and though it is we, and not the world, preparing for judgement, we are usually found lacking. We plead and fret, "Who shall live and who shall die?"
Happy birthday, indeed.
There is another side, of course. By the end of this 10-day journey from painful self-awareness of our own defenselessness to God's judgement, we read on Yom Kippur afternoon some of the sweetest words in Torah, "Surely this instruction which I enjoin upon you today is not too baffling for you, nor is it beyond reach. It is not in the heavens, that you should say, 'Who among us can go up to the heavens and get it for us and impart it to us that we may observe it?' Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, 'Who among us can cross to the other side of the sea and get it for us, and impart it to us, that we may observe it?' No, the thing is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart, to observe it."(Deut 30:11-14)
The Living Torah is ours, not God's. It's a gift for us to do as we see fit, to interpret and struggle with and make our own. It's ours to bring into our hearts and minds, to make us better people. Not that there aren't consequences; certainly there are. If we cast Torah aside, then we can't take part in the joyous experiment that is a righteous society, doing good upon the Earth and building a world of holiness. If we don't hearken to the words, we'll miss out on the mindfulness and meaning that it is our privilege to bring to the world.
That messy, painful birth experience is made better by the promise that we can reach for the highest and attain it-it isn't too far for us. It's nearby and close. We have the potential and the means to bring the words to life. In a real sense, we believe that when we whisper it in our children's baby ears, "You can do anything! All is within your grasp!"
Well, that's not true for everyone. Those are not the whispered promises many children get, neither on their birth-days nor through their lives. For far too many children in the world, that difficult birth experience is a moment when the weakest of us is told, "Sorry, kid. This is as good as it will get. You are destined for a life of anxiety and pain and violence. The 'good life' is far above you, as if it were across the ocean, for you can never reach it." There are those whose paths look different from ours, and they are told, "You don't belong, you never will, blessings for you are far away, and it's your fault."
As with any birthday, whether for the world or for us, we take stock, look at the year past, and make promises. Many of us will soon be sitting among the community, examining our behavior the past year and promising God and ourselves that we will do better. We will ponder our relationships. Perhaps this year, we can include those for whom the blessings of a joyous life are not so near at hand; they seem too high to reach. This year, the blessings might seem closer if we can work on our own acceptance, tolerance, inclusiveness toward others, and leave hatred and intolerance out of our hearts. Let's put the Torah of understanding and kindness into our mouths and our hands.
Wishing everyone a sweet and joyous New Year.
Anita Silvert is a freelance teacher and writer, living in Northbrook. You can read more of her weekly Torah musings on her blog, Jewish Gems, at www.anitasilvert.wordpress.com .