Could it be that Rosh HaShanah is not a Jewish holiday? No—it couldn’t be! Rosh HaShanah is the Jewish New Year. On Rosh HaShanah Jews gather in Jewish houses of worship and say Jewish prayers. We hold our Jewish books, and we blow our Jewish horns. We even take one day and turn it into two—a uniquely Jewish magic trick. And then there’s all the food—the round challot, apples and honey—all of the Jewish soul foods. How could I suggest that Rosh HaShanah is not a Jewish holiday?
Yet that’s my question, could it be that Rosh HaShanah is not a Jewish holiday? I have three arguments to make the case: 1) the readings on Rosh HaShanah, unlike on Yom Kippur, address universal themes of family life; 2) the title Yom Ha’Din, Day of Judgment, indicates a universal experience of all people who live at the same time, and are affected by each other’s behavior; and 3) this day recalls creation and anticipates redemption. The bookends of history indicate our collective understanding of the value and the challenges of life. Together, these three arguments indicate that Rosh HaShanah is not just for Jews, and we err if we focus only on our insular concerns today. Let’s unpack each claim: Continue reading
Yearning to enter and inhabit the land is the great desire that suffuses Deuteronomy; fear of exile is the dark counterpart that lurks insistently by its side. Midrash Sifre (Ekev, piska 43) says that, “exile is equal to all other afflictions.” Indeed, the experience of exile has been the all-too-real nightmare of Israel, though paradoxically, exile has also been a source of blessing over the course of our millennia. Chancellor Eisen explores these themes in his 1986 book, Galut: Modern Jewish Reflection on Homelessness and Homecoming: “In order to teach humanity the truth about blessing and ownership, God deprives Israel of a normal, continuing relation to blessing, much as He from time to time closes human wombs. Exile from home, uprooted from their very own piece of earth, they can learn what has to be learned—the Source from which blessing, like earth, is derived.” (p.15)
Parashat Nitzavim highlights the opposite states of exile and return, warning Israel that national sin will lead inexorably to national exile, but that national repentance will awaken divine mercies and cause God to take the people back home in love. Chapter 29 concludes with the consequence of Israel’s betrayal of the covenant: “The Lord uprooted them from their soil in anger, fury and great wrath, and cast them (וַיַּשְׁלִכֵם) into another land, as is still the case.” Here Moses is has skipped through several chapters in Israel’s future history—past the conquest of the land that will occur in the days of Joshua, and on to the exiles of the northern tribes (which occurred in 722 BCE) and the southern kingdom (which occurred in 586 BCE), and then even further, to the return to Zion. Continue reading
Chapter 27 of Deuteronomy describes various rituals to mark the future entrance of Israel into the promised land, including the plastering of stones and inscription of “these words of Torah” upon them. I imagine these stones as a type of national mezuzah marking the entrance to the land. Still, much about this mitzvah is unclear. For example, are these instruction stones meant to be placed at the Jordan River by Gilgal, as verse 2 implies, or at the altar to be built on Mt Ebal, as taught in v.4? Are the words to be inscribed on hewn stones, or on the rough unhewn stones of the altar, as implied by v.8? Unraveling these complications has been the labor of ancient interpreters (starting within the Bible, in the book of Joshua), of the rabbis and of modern scholars (see Jeffrey Tigay’s JPS Commentary on Deuteronomy, Excursus 25).
However, I am most interested in the last words of v.8, which say the words must be inscribed באר היטב, “most distinctly” (NJPS). Mishnah Sotah 7:13 claims that “they wrote upon the altar stones all the words of Torah in seventy languages.” It boggles the mind to read this as a literal claim—it would be hard enough to write a sentence on an uncut stone, much less the entire Torah in seventy languages. Leaving aside such logistical concerns, it remains fascinating to follow the rabbinic imagination that the first national project of Israel upon entering its promised land was to translate its wisdom into all of the languages of the world. Why? Continue reading
In a summer dominated by the battle between Israel and Hamas in Gaza and also between Russian-backed separatists and the government in Eastern Ukraine, the violent expansion of ISIS in Syria and Iraq, the outbreak of Ebola in West Africa, and by racial unrest here in America, one dramatic story that received less attention in the Jewish community at least was the crisis of refugee children escaping from violence in Central America. With so much upheaval and sorrow in the world, who can spare additional attention on what is occurring south of the border? Indeed, this story has pretty much disappeared from the news. And yet, over 37,000 unaccompanied minors have been released into the care of guardians in the United States pending a legal process that could still result in their be returned to their countries of origin. What should we make of this? Continue reading