[Note: This is a “reprint” of a dvar torah I wrote two years ago for an old blog of mine. It is more religious and personal in tone than my regular podcast.]
While we think of the days from Rosh Hashana to Yom Kippur as a time to connect to God, the Yamim Noraim (Days of Awe) reflect a very human-centered view of the world. Rosh Hashana, as the beginning of the year, is meant to be determined through the lunisolar calendar, which requires human determination of months and leap years.
The Calendar at Qumran
This approach is usually taken for granted, particularly in the modern world. But there have been logical alternatives chosen by Jews in the past. At Qumran, towards the end of the Second Temple Period, the community observed (or claimed to observe) a schematic and solar calendar, 364 days in length. As this calendar is perfectly divisible by seven, each holiday would always fall on the same day of the week. The beginning of the year, Rosh Hashana, always came out on a Wednesday. Why? Because the planets were created on the fourth day – Wednesday. Without planets, there could be no calendar, and no year. Thus, the planets, themselves set in motion through divine will, are at the center of the Qumran calendar.
The Lunisolar Calendar & Human Centrality
Who, or what, is at the center of the “lunisolar” calendar still observed in Judaism today? The lunisolar calendar cannot function without human intervention. The months differ in length and are determined through observation of the moon. There MUST be a leap year — a human adjustment of the regular annual cycle — in order to keep the lunar months in sync with the solar agricultural seasons and holidays.
Moreover, when we say that Rosh Hashana is the “birthday of the world” (yom harat olam), we mean the birthday of existence, not of the sun and moon. A midrash in Pesiqta de-Rav Kahana (23:1) and in VaYiqra Rabba (29:1) clarifies that Rosh Hashana marks the birth of Adam, not of the planet or even of heaven and earth, emphasizing the human focus of the holiday.
In fact, according to multiple sources the point of the world itself is its humanity. The “avoda” service in Mussaf of Yom Kippur (according to nusah ashkenaz) includes a medieval piyut (liturgical poem) that takes the reader from the creation of the world through the generations of humans to Aharon the high priest and his performance of the Yom Kippur avoda (sacrificial service). It is clear that the aim of the world has been to reach this moment, where human beings atone before God.
The Possibility of Atonement
The possibility of atonement itself is unusual in the power it gives the human being to affect the divine sphere. To appreciate this, we need to look at Ezekiel’s explanation of repentance and the difficulty of his audience in accepting it. After Ezekiel’s explanation of the power of repentance to attain forgiveness of sins, his audience, the “House of Israel,” exclaims that this is impossible (Ezek. 18:29). Their protest is understandable when we shake off our modern idea of sin as something fuzzy and easily erasable and remember that in the ancient world, sin was considered truly damaging. God’s mercy was expressed as “lifting” the burden of sin and eking out the punishment over generations, not wiping it out altogether. Much as an apology cannot reverse a murder, a mere act of speech or thought could not wipe out the damage of sin. And yet, Ezekiel explains, it can: “…Repent and return from all your sins and (they) will no longer be a stumbling-block of sin for you.” (Ezek. 18:30)
Thus the Yamim Noraim remind us of both our importance and our responsibilities as human beings. The world was created for us. Like Aharon, let us use our place in it to serve God and do good.