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Rosh Hashana

04/06/2015 07:18:00 AM


According to my son, Disney's The Lion King is the greatest film ever made. He saw it three times in the theater, and insisted on playing the soundtrack every morning on our way to school. All the way to kindergarten, we sang the film's stirring theme song, "The Circle of Life," until one morning I listened to the words.

The Circle of Life may be humanity's most popular idea. Nature is all circles: day and night; the turning of the seasons; the revolutions of planets; birth, growth, maturity, decay, death, and rebirth. The Circle of Life roots human experience in nature and find the same cyclical pattern in life.

If life is a circle, then death is not an end. Death is not a tragedy. Death is only an invitation to rebirth and renewal. This is the "myth of eternal return" -- the phoenix rising from its ashes. No wonder so much of humanity, including Disney, finds comfort in this idea.

The circle, according to Joseph Campbell, is the most ubiquitous symbol in world religion: Buddhist prayer wheels, Moslems circle the Kabba, Native Americans villages built in circles. Christianity, with its faith in death and resurrection, is all circles.

In Judaism, however, you find no circles. Jewish tradition rebelled against circles because it perceived the deadly implications of this belief. Life as a circle is closed, its pattern fixed, and nothing new can enter.

"Utter futility!
Only that shall happen, which has happened,
Only that occur, which has occurred;
There is nothing new under the sun!" (Ecclesiastes 1)

Can there be a more hopeless idea than history, like nature, bound to repeat itself in endless cycles of war, holocaust, plague and destruction? Can we never learn? Can we never change?

In the Circle of Life the individual is extinguished. When there's nothing new under the sun, there's nothing new that I, as an individual, can bring to the world. Anything I dream has already been done. Anything I do will only be washed away by time until some fool in the next generation arrives at the same plan and tries again. Ultimately, the Circle of Life is a philosophy of defeat and passivity. If all is fated to repeat, why dream? why try? why bother? Don't worry. Be happy.

Judaism passionately rejected the Circle of Life. It offered a radical new idea: "Breshit, The Beginning." We are a people obsessed with beginnings. Our High Holidays commence with Rosh Hashana, the new year. According to the Mishna, there are actually four New Years in the Jewish calendar. Twelve times a year, Rosh Hodesh, the arrival of a new month is celebrated. The Torah opens with Breshit, "In the Beginning."

We believe in beginnings because we believe that the world can change. We believe that people can change. Destiny is not fixed. And personality is not fixed. You have the freedom to choose to be the person you would be. We have the power to create the world as we would want it. No force of human nature, of destiny, of heaven, of karma, can rob us of that freedom, and none can relieve us of its responsibility.

We believe in beginnings because we believe that the human individual is precious -- brought into this world to add something totally new and unprecedented. We have expectations for each human individual. Each of us carries one word of God's message. Only with your word, your contribution, will the message ever be intelligible, will the world be complete.

As organisms we live in natural cycles. But as moral beings our history is a line with a beginning and an end, with progress and regress. The Torah's central metaphor is a journey. History is the trek from Egypt to Canaan, from the House of Bondage to the Promised Land. Whether we, by our efforts and pursuits, have moved the world forward toward the promise, or backward toward slavery, is the ultimate measure and significance of our lives.

On Rosh Hashana we blow the Shofar and sing "Hayom Harat Olam, Today is the world's birthday." Today we begin. Today we celebrate a world of openness and possibilities. Today we accept the responsibility to move and heal the world. Today, we renew our expectations and our ideals. Today, a new day never before seen, and never to be repeated.

Shana Tova.

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