Celebrating the World’s Birthday

Celebrating the World’s Birthday

By Rabbi Mark Zimmerman | Congregation Beth Shalom

In just a few days we will enter our synagogues on Rosh Hashanah and recite the words “Hayom harat olam”: “Today is the birthday of the world.”

So what does it mean for us to see Rosh Hashanah as the world’s birthday?

Rabbi Mark Zimmerman
Rabbi Mark Zimmerman

Well, I don’t believe that it literally means that only 5,776 years ago the big bang exploded our universe into existence. That idea hasn’t made much sense since we discovered that the physical universe is billions of years older than that. But hayom harat olam may very well mean that it was precisely that many years ago when we began to forge a relationship with the Creator and contemplate the meaning and purpose of our existence.

When we celebrate our own birthday or that of our children, it beckons us to think back over the years that have passed and to wonder what life will be like, what we will be like, when future birthdays come back around to greet us.

Those are exactly the kinds of questions we are supposed to think about when we celebrate the world’s birthday. On Rosh Hashanah, however, we not only ponder what we will be like, but also contemplate what the world will be like and what part we can play in perfecting G-d’s creation and shaping a better world for all of humanity.

Our troubled world is greatly in need of healing today. And our community, too often plagued by divisiveness, is in need of healing as well.

When we read the story of creation in the book of Genesis, the first question that G-d asks Adam in the Garden of Eden is “Ayeka?” “Where are you?”

Adam runs away from that question as he is trying in vain to hide from G-d’s probing presence. The author Leonard Fein explains: “If G-d knows all, then why did G-d have to ask Adam, ‘Where are you?’ ” Fein answers: “The question is a spiritual one, and the answer must be spiritual, too. It was asked not just of Adam, but of each of us, every day. Where are you? Where is your spiritual life?”

Later in the Torah, G-d calls upon Abraham and Moses, and it is then that we learn a much better response for when G-d is searching you out, namely “Hineni”: Here I am.

What does it mean when Abraham and Moses answer “Hineni”? It means they are not going to hide from G-d as Adam did, and they reply to G-d with a willing response, saying: “I am here. I am aware of Your presence, and I am ready to respond to the divine call.”

On Rosh Hashanah we will also come to shul to hear the blasts of the shofar. And when we hear these ancient notes, we are supposed to feel that same impact of G-d calling out to each one of us. As Maimonides explains, the shofar is imploring us: “Awake, O you sleepers, from your slumber!”

It is time to be stirred from your complacency. Another year has passed, and you have more work to do before your time on this earth has come to an end.

Our shabbatot, our holidays, our sacred texts, our schools and synagogues are all here to awaken the Jewish soul to the untapped potential that lies within us to lead a more divine, spiritually connected life. We are fortunate to have so many ways at our disposal to deepen that connection over the course of the coming year if we just listen and respond to G-d’s call.

A Hasidic disciple once asked his master: “Rebbe, where is G-d to be found?” And the rebbe answered, “G-d is found wherever he is allowed in.” The possibility to live a meaningful and spiritual life is right there for the asking. We only have to decide to take a step and open that door in our lives.

Once we say hineni to ourselves and embrace that spiritual potential within each one of us, our existence will blossom with deeper and more profound meaning.

We accepted the Torah at Sinai and made a covenant with G-d not as lone individuals, but as a community. So my prayer this Rosh Hashanah is that we do not cut ourselves off from that community and that we do all we can to ensure that the story of the Jewish people continues to unfold for many generations to come.

As we begin the new year, let us ask ourselves: Where are we? And let each of us respond not only in our hearts, but in our actions: Hineni — here I am.

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