The Jewish March Through History

By RABBI IRVING GREENBERG

It is a common convention that there are two New Years—one for the Jews and one for the world. Everyone thinks that Rosh Hashanah (literal translation: Head, or Beginning, of the Year) is the Jewish New Year’s Day and January 1 is the general New Year. But according to Jewish tradition, Rosh Hashanah is itself the general New Year’s Day. This day celebrates the anniversary of the creation of the cosmos and its continuous renewal. “Today is the birthday of the world,” proclaims the Rosh Hashanah liturgy. The prayer continues: “This [also] is the day when all the creatures in the world are placed in judgment.” It should be noted that all creatures are judged, not just Jews. Following judgment, sins are forgiven, moral debts are wiped out, and life is renewed. So this New Year is really for everybody—all of humanity.

But there is a second Jewish New Year’s Day occurring in the Hebrew month of Nisan, the first month of the Hebrew calendar, which falls every year around March or April. Nisan brings us Passover, a celebration of the core event of Jewish history: the Exodus. Since the liberation that began with the Exodus marked the beginning of the existence of the Jews as a people, all political dates in Biblical times (e.g., counting the reign of kings) began with the first of this month.

While the events of Creation transpired throughout the cosmos and shape the life conditions of every person in the world, the Passover Exodus, by contrast, focuses on a particular group: the Hebrew slaves who were liberated from Egypt. Therefore, this holiday shapes the specific life pattern of the Jews. Thus, on this holiday, Jews were instructed to go up to Jerusalem and visit the Temple. Through this ritual, their life was renewed. On Passover, the paschal lamb was sacrificed and eaten by all members of the household. This was the covenant meal in which each person participated to show that he/she was a member of the Jewish religion and people. Thus the covenant membership was renewed. After the Temple was destroyed and sacrifices were no longer possible, the Seder was developed by the rabbis to reenact the feast. The tale of Jewish liberation was told with narrative, Biblical verses, commentary, and ritual.

In sum, it would appear that Rosh Hashanah is the holiday that focuses on renewing the world for humanity, and Passover is the holiday of renewing life for the Jewish people. By this logic, Rosh Hashanah speaks to all of humanity; Passover speaks exclusively to the Jewish people.

Well… not so fast. There is a much deeper relationship between the two holidays. To understand the connection is to understand the meaning and purpose of Judaism. What is the message of Rosh Hashanah’s Creation story? This world did not come into existence by accident or by some blind mechanical process. It was created with a plan—a Divine plan. This accounts for the beauty and harmony, the exquisite order and dazzling variety of life that the Earth sustains. The plan is that one day, the world will be perfected.

What is the definition of a perfect world? A world filled with life, especially the highest form of life—human beings. Every human being is born with three fundamental dignities—infinite value, equality, and uniqueness. When the world reaches perfection, these dignities will be honored in reality. What does this mean? No poverty or hunger (a contradiction to the infinite value of each human), no slavery or degradation (a denial of equality), no stereotyping or discrimination (a denial of uniqueness). All these visions of a perfect world apply to every human being, not just to Jews.

What, then, is the purpose of a distinctively Jewish existence? The Jews see themselves on the cutting edge of the movement in history toward universal perfection. Passover teaches that in a world full of slavery, the Hebrews were liberated. According to the Bible, God intends Israel’s history as a paradigm for the world. What happened to the Israelites will someday happen to everyone. Passover is the down payment of liberation; the rest of the world is to follow. Exodus is a model held up for all to imitate. Slaves should not accept their fate as a given; God wants them to be free. No wonder, then, that African-American slaves sang, “When Israel was in Egypt’s land, let my people go.” Everyone will someday march from aliens-in-bondage to freedom to a dignified life of national independence. Let no one accept permanent alien or pariah status.

The Jewish concepts of liberation, love of God, and the creation of a society that lives by the principles of Exodus were disseminated to non-Jews again and again—by Christianity, by Islam, by Western cultures. Passover thus turns out to be a distinctively Jewish holiday that resonated (in modulated form) in many nations and societies all over the world. And as long as the world is marred by denial of human dignity and equality, Jews will go on teaching and practicing the Exodus model for all humanity to follow. Says the Haggadah, “In every generation a person is obligated to see him/herself as if he/she went out of Egypt.” This is why Judaism came into being, says the Bible. So this year, go and celebrate Passover, the Jewish New Year for the world. Once you have experienced and internalized this entitlement to freedom, the illegitimacy of oppression, the ways in which God is on the side of the exploited—then go and teach the lesson to the world; go and bring the liberation to others.

Reprinted with permission from the AVI CHAI Bookshelf, where birthright Israel alumni can order free books and periodicals.