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Happy Birthday, World

by Tim O'Hearn

People react in different ways to birthdays. For many people a birthday is a joyous occasion, a celebration of getting a year closer to what one wants to be or of having completed another year. For others, a birthday is a somber occasion; a reminder of aging, perhaps, or of someone who is no longer able to share it.

Whatever one’s view of birthday parties may be, there will be a celebration of a birthday beginning at sundown on September 29, 2011. In this case the celebrant will be, according to the rabbis, 5771 years old. (Bishop Ussher gave a slightly higher age, which would now be 6015 years.) Yes, the celebrant in this case is the earth. Rosh HaShanah is, traditionally, considered to be the anniversary of the creation. Some rabbis say more specifically that it is the anniversary of the sixth day of creation, that in which God created man.

If you attend one of the celebrations of this birthday, don’t expect to hear Paul McCartney (“Birthday”) or Neil Sedaka (“Happy Birthday Sweet Sixteen”). Oh, there will be music. It tends to be a little more mournful, however. It consists of many blasts on the shofar. (When I blow my shofar, it is really mournful, but in a different way.) This is traditionally a birthday without a lot of joy. That is because it begins the week ending in Yom Kippur, the day of atonement. The music of the day, in fact the whole tenor of the day, is repentance for the errors of the past year.

Assuming Rosh HaShanah to be an anniversary of the creation (and whether it truly is, or is merely a day chosen to celebrate that anniversary is irrelevant), what might that mean to us? Are there any implications to which we must pay heed?

If the day is an anniversary of creation, that necessarily implies the fact of creation. In an era when many doubt that God created, or that what we see is not anything more than an accident of random action of particles, it might be nice to declare to the world that we believe that God created the world. When so many religious Jews and Christians are backpedaling on the accuracy of the biblical account (“it is metaphor,” “it was six days but we don’t know how long the day was”) it is refreshing for someone to declare, “God created the world in six days, and I believe it.” That alone should be enough reason for Jews and Christians both to take part in worship to God on Rosh HaShanah.

One implication, which some rabbis point out, is that if man were created on that day, then it naturally follows that God is king. When he created man, a subject, that necessarily made him sovereign over that subject. There are a number of implications inherent in the sovereignty of God. One is that he has the authority to make laws for man, and expect them to be followed. “Thy hands have made me and fashioned me: give me understanding, that I may learn thy commandments.” (Ps 119:73) Another is that man is not king. Rosh HaShanah says there is a personage that is outside of us and over us. Both of these implications can be found in the other meaning of the holiday; announcing a period of repentance before the judgement of Yom Kippur. If God has the authority to make laws and is superior to us, having created us, then he also has the authority to punish wrongdoing and reward righteousness.

You are invited to a birthday. Before you accept the invitation, be prepared to accept the consequences.