The following is the text of my D’var Torah, given 9/28/2011, for Rosh Hashanah for the George Mason University Hillel.
Tonight is the beginning of Rosh Hashanah, which literally translates to ‘head of the year.’ It’s the first day, One Tishrei, of the new Jewish Year 5772. The Rabbis teach us that Rosh Hashanah is the anniversary of the creation of man and woman.
Isn’t that sort of odd?
There were six days of creation (and one day of rest) in the first week of the world. We are not starting at the beginning of this biblical week, nor really at the end. Instead we start our calendar, and every new year, at the anniversary of day 6, the creation of man. Why day six? Is it because humanity might, perhaps, be a bit egotistical?
I think there is more to it then that.
Is there something else that makes day 6 special? In Genesis, chapter two, we receive the second version of the creation story. God has created Adam but, before creating Eve, Adonai has a task for the first man. God brings forth every beast and bird He has created and presents them to Adam. The Torah states that God “brought them to the man to see what he would call each one and whatever the man called each living creature, that remained its name.” (Verse 19).
Rabbi David Kimchi explains that, in the Torah, “a name is not simply a convenient convention, but it reflects the nature of each creature and its role in the total scheme of the universe.”
Names aren’t just powerful in the Torah. Our tradition talks of masters of the Talmud and Kabbalah who could control the universe around them through their knowledge of letters. Most will remember the most prominent account, the Golem, a clay statue who was brought to life with a single word and returned to non-existence by taking away a single letter.
Day six is important because it’s all about why we, as humanity, stand apart. We celebrate our greatest power, that of words. By naming all the animals, Adam is working together, with God, to shape the world. It’s the beginning of words and stories and we celebrate it because they remain our most important power; our most important responsibility, the first God assigned to humankind.
Words have power and, since as far as I know no one here can bring a Golem to life, we manifest that power in stories. Stories that surround us every day, in the news, at work, in the marketing on the grocery store shelf. Everything contains a narrative and we consume more stories daily than we realize.
These narratives change the world, sometimes on a daily basis. Like Adam, our words craft reality, so it’s important that we don’t only depend on others to speak for us. We cannot just sit back and merely let ourselves be entertained.
This is the beginning of a year filled with some serious politics, in about 13 months we’ll be having another presidential election. If you watch as much cable news as I do (which, by the way, I wouldn’t recommend), you may have heard about how politicians need to ‘control the narrative.’ Which means they are trying to present everyone with a single story about who they are.
You don’t need to let them. It doesn’t matter who you plan to back or why, you shouldn’t let anyone control the narrative. Make your own stories, talk to others, investigate and report.
Tell the tale of who you are and what you believe.
It doesn’t take an expert to tell a narrative. It becomes easier every year. You could use a camera phone, write on the internet, pick up a pen and paper, or you could just (and this is a strange concept, I know) go out and talk to someone.
The wonderful thing about stories is that you don’t need a microphone, a suit or a printing press to tell them.
All you need to change the world is your voice.
Many Ashkenazi Jewish communities sound the shofar one hundred times on Rosh Hashanah. According to Historian Eliyahu Ki Tov, each of these one hundred sounds is considered symbolic of the letters of Sisera’s mother’s lament, recalled in the Song of Devorah, chapter four of Judges. The lament was said to be filled with animosity and hatred so strong that it still affects us today. The sound of the Shofar is meant to arouse God’s compassion, recalling Adonai’s mercy when Issac was offered as a sacrifice. By sounding the Shofar one hundred times on Rosh Hashanah we seek to counteract cruelty with mercy.
This new year take up our first responsibility again. Like the one hundred sounds of the Shofar, we must use the divine power of our words to counteract hatred and confusion with compassion, intelligence and wisdom.
This new year tell a story and make it a good one.
Leshanah tovah tikateiv veteichateim
May you be inscribed and sealed for a good year.