By Rabbi Natan Margalit
Rosh HaShana, of course, means “New Year” but the Hebrew might also be loosely translated “the Beginning of Change.”* We also refer to Rosh HaShana in our liturgy as “the birthday of the world” – ha’yom harat olam. This doesn’t mean that the birthday happened five thousand or four billion years ago; it means that this is a moment ripe for change, for a new birth—every year. This year it especially feels to me like the primary meaning of Rosh HaShana is a time to focus on change, on birthing a new world.
As we all have experienced, this past year has been like no other. The world as we knew it has literally come crashing down, ground to a halt, splintered and shattered. Yet, within all this coming apart, perhaps we are being offered the opportunity to reimagine our world. There is no “business as usual” anymore.
Is it really possible to birth a new world? It seems to me that Jewish tradition has answered emphatically yes! We are charged with being God’s partners in co-creating the world. But how do we do such an audacious thing? The answers that have come down from the earliest biblical texts up to the most recent mystical writings have one thing in common: in order to come into our human potential to be creators, we must first accept and deeply imbue our consciousness with the reality that we are not gods unto ourselves, but are, like all our fellow creatures, embedded in a miraculous world of which we are but a small part. We are here first to serve that greater whole and its Infinite Source—and only then can we be empowered to co-create our world.
This year with its cascading crises of disease, social upheaval and natural disaster has literally hit us from all angles. But the thing that I find strikingly similar in all these crises is that they all seem to be showing us, imploring us, to notice our embeddedness in the dynamic interconnected patterns of a living world. This is especially hard for us in the United States because, more than just about any other culture, we have an ideology of individualism which can blind us to that connectedness.
The pandemic of Covid-19 has spread, well…, virally. That is, it caught so many by surprise because it rides on the complex and invisible interconnections between people. Viral outbreaks can only be effectively countered by coordinated planning and cooperative action—each one of us knowing that our mask wearing and social distancing is a vital part of the whole community’s health. But, as we’ve seen in this country, having every state, city or individual out for themselves is a recipe for disaster. This pandemic calls on us to realize our connectedness and work together for all our lives and health. The paradox of all our “social distancing” and separations has been to remind us how deeply we are all woven together.
When we are faced with extreme weather such as the fires raging in the Western U.S., we are tired of hearing that “no one weather event can conclusively be attributed to climate change.” Yes, it is true that technically no one event can be said to be directly caused by climate change—because in any complex system individual events can’t be determined and predicted—but the larger global climate system is clearly changing terrifyingly fast. Individually, it appears to be chaos, but when we lift our eyes to see the pattern of the world’s climate system, it is clear that we need to change our energy consumption and build a new, sustainable way of living if we are to pull ourselves back from this looming disaster.
It has been especially hard for individualist America to grasp the reality of systemic racism. The ideology of individualism tells us we are supposed to pull ourselves up from our bootstraps, make our way to the “American Dream” by our merit, our striving, etc. You don’t blame your individual failures on some force or circumstance that held you back, and so on. Robin DiAngelo, in her book White Fragility, points out how this ideology of individualism hides systemic racism from our eyes: it tells us that if a person is in jail they must deserve it, and if a person lives in a poor neighborhood they must not have worked as hard as one who lives in a rich one. It tells us that a person “is” or “is not” a racist, as if that were strictly an individual trait of the person, instead of the water in which we all swim.
Yet, when my wife and I bought our home, we were able to borrow money for a down payment from our parents. We didn’t think of that as a racial issue at the time, but we now understand that it is: as white people (yes, even as Jews) we have been able for generations to buy homes, get mortgages, access good education and build wealth in ways that have not been accessible to people of color. My owning a home isn’t all about my own work—I’ve benefited from the racist system that has been in place since the beginning of the country.
We have come to a breaking point and also an opportunity: the crises of disease, race, climate and more are all showing us that we have been ignoring our place in the whole. We have been acting as if we are gods and can manipulate the world for our short-term benefit and convenience. We now see that we can change the world, but if we act blindly and greedily, we change it by bringing destruction on ourselves and the rest of creation. Our tradition has taught us from Genesis onward that we are invited to be creators, to audaciously dare to change the world—but only as co-creators, as parts of the awesome and miraculous creation of which we are one part. This year we are being offered the opportunity to birth a new world, to start on a new course of justice, flourishing and security—and we start on Rosh HaShana by waking up with awe to the way that our lives are bound up with the Life of the world. Let us all be written into the Book of Life!
* Actually, that would be Rosh Ha’shinui but its close enough: shana can also carry the meaning of change.