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.