by Rabbi Johny Kersh
“Hey, hey, it’s your birthday! So what better way to celebrate than by donning your finest and dining like a king with your family and closest friends at none other than the Supreme Court…….for your very own trial!” Despite reading like the DOJ’s last birthday card to Jeffrey Epstein, this is in effect, our Divine invitation, faithfully delivered prior to each and every Rosh Hashanah. For underpinning the Yom Tov’s festivities, the grand celebrations that mark Mankind’s collective birthday is the awesome and imposing awareness of that day being one on which our life literally hangs in the balance.
Contrary to the popular notion of a ‘birthday’, whereby somehow, the existence of another year of life grants the birthday boy or girl the right to celebrity status for the day, whilst being lavished with gifts at a party held in their honor – on Rosh Hashanah, at the birthday celebrations of Mankind itself, the Torah shifts the focus away from our own beings as the centers of attention, instead toward our appreciation for the Divine gift of life and our awareness of the responsibility that comes part of the package. Moreover in fact, the festivities themselves are held as an outgrowth of that recognizition. Yet, the difficulty remains; granted the celebrations are albeit more solemn than the average birthday bash, but, it’s fair to assume that ‘Divine Judgement & Appraisal’ is a theme that even the most creative party planner would struggle to have us resonate with. Is there some deeper wisdom to be mined here, or are we simply feigning optimism whilst burying our heads in the sand?
Today’s prominent thinkers have grappled over this delusional sense of entitlement synonymous with ‘birthday fever’, suggesting it may well be symptomatic of the over-investment in our inalienable Bill of Rights (rather than cultivating a ‘Bill of Obligations’),upon which we deem the bedrock of a moral society. However, logic dictates that for society to uphold any given right, we must also fulfill its counterpart obligation. For instance, the worker’s right to a fair wage will rely on the employer’s obligation to pay it. So why therefore, focus on the rights over the obligations? It’s a subtle difference that seems just plain semantics and yet we find that the Torah, God’s legislation for galvanizing a society of people into a community of charitable givers who will deem the welfare of its members as dear as their own – in fact, couches all of its Mitzvos in a language of obligation. Sadly however, to our regret, we currently live in a society that bears the opposite truth – one that reinforces rights as the priority, further priming its individual members to complete for ‘gold’ in the rat race of life.
If you’ve ever walked by a cemetery, you’ll notice many of the headstones are shaped as religious symbols, and even those plain ones, upon closer inspection usually reveal an epitaph that serves as both testimony to the noble values the deceased upheld throughout their life, whilst also delivering a sobering reminder about our own mortality, helping inspire us to set our sights on such lofty ideals. Remarkably, this is true regardless of whether the deceased was a famous philanthropist, movie star, sports personality or mobster. And so it seems, that despite being caught up in the ‘rat race’, yet as the finish line draws near, most of us indeed recognize there is more to life than fame and fortune.
Judaism teaches that all souls enter this world to ascend spiritually, not just to climb the corporate ladder or to achieve any other form of material success and while external goals are usually essential to achieving this, they are a means to the end and not the end itself. The purpose of the soul’s descent into this world of uncertainty (the world ‘Olam’ meaning world shares it’s root with the word Helem’ meaning hidden) is in order to realize its latent potential through the mechanism of personal challenge. However, these are not the epic moments reserved for the ‘Silver Screen’, complete with a dramatic background score, but rather they are the daily repeated challenges with which God presents us, disguised in the veil of the mundane and whose sole purpose is to refine our character and elevate us spiritually. For instance, whether or not to allow the lack of a parking spot to cause us unnecessary anger. Should we give up our seat in the waiting room to the elderly lady that just came in? Will we let slide the fact that somebody with a couple of items just cut us in the line, etc. These everyday dilemmas are in fact, the moral battles whose victories or losses are the key component to our spiritual growth. Whether we pass or fail, is entirely up to us. On Rosh Hashanah, we celebrate because we recognize that God has priveleged us with carving out our own spiritual destiny, something we can truly call our own, and yet the privelege comes with the responsibility to better ourselves and all of Humanity.