Grateful for Rosh Hashanah as a festival of Freedom
Commonly, the Festival of Freedom in Jewish life is Passover! Yet,I maintain, that freedom is at the heart of Rosh Ha shanah as well.
How do we arrive at this conclusion ? After all, Rosh Hashanah is referred to by tradition as the Season of soul- searching and the sounding of Teruah, the shofar?
Moreover,while each of the pilgrimage festivals on the Jewish calendar is multidimensional in its meaning and the Exodus enters into the rationale for these holy events, Rosh Hashanah is not included as a time during which we recall the Exodus.
However, the Talmud asks what does Rosh Hashanah commemorate and we are provided with several answers, one of which strongly suggests the idea of freedom.
“Rabbi Eliezer said: in Tishrei-the month of Rosh Hashanah, the world was created.”(Talmud Rosh Hashanah 10b) Ostensibly, this interpretation is wholly logical with the idea of the creation of the world and Rosh Hashanah as signifying the birthday of the world. As such, some liberal congregations select as the Torah reading for the first day of Rosh Hashanah the creation story-Genesis,Chapter 1. Yet, most other congregations, and the tradition indicates a very different Torah reading, Genesisi 21 :1-34. Why?
This segment tells the story of the birth of a child ,Isaac, the son of Sarahand Abraham.
But more than that, it continues to narrate the expulsion of the concubine Hagar with her son and her son’s near death in the wilderness, and the eventual appearance of God’s angel to rescue her and her child, Ishmael. God hears the voice of Hagar, the Egyptian concubine, and assures her through a messenger, that she too will give birth to a great nation.
How are we to understand this selection in relation to Rosh Hashanah’s meaning?
To answer, consider another statement in the Talmud that conveys a different rationale for Rosh Hashanah’s meaning.
“On Rosh Hashanah, Joseph went forth from prison.”( Ibid 11b).
In other words, this festival marks an event of freedom from imprisonment of some kind. In Joseph’s case, prison was literal and he found himself in such a situation by being falsely accused by Potiphar’s wife of sexual advances.
In Hagar’s case, she is the victim of both her ethnic and social status and her gender as a woman. Sarah and Abraham can do with her what they wish. Therefore, at the insistence of Sarah, echoed by God Himself, Abraham expels Hagar from his household. Hagar as concubine and Egyptian was a prisoner of the social mores of that time-an underdog, a slave with no rights and no power of self-assertion.
Being a woman,furthermore, only exacerbated her condition of utter vulnerability, bringing her to the edge of the abyss together with her child,the essence of her womanhood and personhood.
The story ,however, takes a turn toward the divine and miraculous as intervention from above announces a new reality in the spiritual evolution of humanity, namely the capacity to be free, to transcend social, gender and political status and survive successfully as human beings with god-given rights of being loved and cared for.Thus the message of freedom on Rosh Hashanah that determined the selection of this particular story as a Torah reading on Rosh Hashanah.
We are grateful for the multiple richness of this festival especially for the gift of personal freedom rooted in our identity as God’s children.Happy New Year,