Lessons From Jewish New Year

What Jews, Muslims and Christians Long for Together

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Today, on the eve of the Jewish celebration of Rosh Ha’shanah (New Year) Pope Francis met with a delegation of the World Jewish Congress. 

It is good to reflect for a moment on the meaning of the Jewish New Year celebrated this week.  It has significiance for Christians as well.  The Feast of Rosh Ha’shanah, meaning literally the “beginning of the year,” occurs on the first of the Hebrew month Tishre and inaugurates the solemn Jewish season which concludes with Yom Kippur.  In the Bible, the Jewish New Year Festival is called Day of the Sounding of the Shofar and Memorial of the blowing of the Shofar (ram’s horn).  This instrument is designed to sound the alarm of the forthcoming solemn season, to awaken Jewry to prayer and repentance.  It serves as a call to remember the historical events which made Israel a people, whether at Mount Sinai or on its entrance into Israel, or on the occasion of the proclamation of the Jubilee year.  In Jewish liturgy, this feast also has two other names:  Day of Memorial and Day of Judgment.  Each of the different names of the Festival conveys one of the special characteristics of the Festival.

Rosh Hashanah is not an opportunity for excess and mirth.  If Jews rejoice in the festival, it is only in the knowledge that life still holds out the promise of better things.  It is the occasion of self-examination, a time when, in the words of their prayers, all creatures are remembered before God.  It is a day of Judgment, not only in the Divine sense, but in the sense that on this day all Jews should judge their own actions.  It is also a day of remembrance, not only of great events of the dim past, but also of the incidents of the human journey over the past year.  Rosh Hashanah invites all Jews to recall with gratitude the many times they have been delivered from mishap and pain by the unseen hand of the Almighty One.

One of the very happy memories of my years of study in Israel was the experience of the Jewish High Holy Days of Rosh Ha’shanah (Jewish New Year), Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement) and Sukkoth (Feast of Booths) in the city of Jerusalem.  With those holidays upon us again over the next two weeks, I would like to recall one of the principal biblical texts read in synagogues on the Jewish New Year, and consider its relevance for us today, especially at a time when solid interfaith relations are essential and necessary for the future of humanity.  It is the well-known Genesis story of the sacrifice of Isaac by his father Abraham (Genesis 22:1-19), referred to as the “Akedah” in Hebrew. Akedah is the anglicization of the Aramaic word for “binding.”  The story is told in few sentences, and it easily provokes scandal for the modern mind: What sort of God is this, who can command a father to kill his own son? What would a contemporary father do if he were to be called on to sacrifice his only son to God?  The point of the story is Abraham’s unquestioning faith and God’s acceptance of it as the occasion of his unconditional promise of future blessing to Abraham’s descendants.

The binding of Isaac is a symbol of life, not death – for Abraham is forbidden to sacrifice his son. Jews, Christians and Muslims exist to reveal the holiness of God’s name and God’s sovereignty over all creation. In a world filled with so many voices and things demanding first place, Judaism, Christianity and Islam all recognize God as ruler over all.  We yearn for the day when God will be all in all, when swords will be turned into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks – in Jerusalem, in the Holy Lands that also include Palestine, Syria, Lebanon, Egypt, Jordan and Iraq, and throughout the whole world.

One aspect of the Akedah has much relevance not only for Jews, but Christians and Muslims as well: The location of this story. The event took place on Mount Moriah. “Moriah” in Hebrew refers to “the place of vision.” The ancient Israelites were drawn to the sacred high stone of Jerusalem because the Canaanites first worshipped it. The link between the two peoples is dramatized in Hebrew scriptures by the story of Melchisedek, the legendary Canaanite priest-king of Jerusalem who anticipated monotheism, the belief in but one God.

Later, the patriarch Abraham, obedient to the Lord, binds his son Isaac for sacrifice on the sanctified rock called Moriah.  Eventually Moriah becomes the foundation stone of Solomon’s Temple, built as the dwelling place of God. The precious rock becomes the bond between Judaism and two other faiths, Christianity and Islam. It was on the Jewish Temple that Jesus prophesied Jerusalem’s destruction as prelude to the arrival of God’s Kingdom.

Six hundred years after Jesus, with the Jewish Temple in ruins, the Muslim conquerors of Palestine showed their own profound respect for the Abrahamic stone of sacrifice by building over it a magnificent octagonal shrine, naming it The Dome of the Rock.  This stone on Mount Moriah is the source of Jerusalem’s religious unity and it is also the symbol of the world’s faith. I often saw pilgrims kneeling at Jesus’ tomb at the foot of another Jerusalem mount named Calvary, and Jews in prayer before the Western Wall, while the muezzin called the Muslim faithful to prayer!

The root of redemption

Jerusalem is still the root of redemption. The vision of the one God united Jerusalem’s different peoples. What divides them is the daily, practical application of that vision, i.e., religion.  The vision of God is given to human beings who speak different languages and see the world differently. Religion is born of these differences.  There is no better place to experience this paradox than on the very stone which tradition identifies to be the place of the Akedah. For all three great world religions, this spot is a centre of focus and identity.  One thousand years after monotheism vanquished idolatrous polytheism, believers in the God of Israel quarreled in Jerusalem over who was the true messianic agent to the One God, and in that quarrel Christianity was born.  Later the prophet Mohammed, rejected by both Jews and Christians, inspired an army of zealots who conquered Jerusalem.  To show their pride in the triumph of Islam, they constructed the Dome of the Rock on the Temple Mount, a shrine deliberately built higher than Constantine’s Golgotha basilica.  The births of Christianity and Islam from Judaism were painful and bloody.  How could we not expect that Jerusalem would become the battleground of three monotheistic faiths?  If today we criticize the senselessness of religious conflict in the Holy City, should we not also lament the foolishness of God who chose a hilltop town as his earthly abode?  For what pagan or Jew or Christian or Muslim could resist dominating God’s dwelling place and thereby come into conflict with his brothers? 

There is no better place to experience this paradox than on the very stone which tradition identifies to be the place of the Akedah.  For all three great world religions, this very spot is a center of focus and identity.  We have already seen that it’s the place that David bought to center his royal city of Jerusalem and, later, Solomon built the first beautiful Temple on that very spot.  Later in history, at the time of Jesus, it was the place that Herod built his Temple, establishing a great platform and building on it the most splendid of all Temple buildings.  So it is very sacred to Judaism as well as to the Muslim religion.  But, because of the memory of Jesus, it’s sacred to Christianity, as well.  Here Jesus came, the great prophet from Galilee, at the climax of his ministry, to purify the Temple, the house of his God.  Here was the crisis that precipitated the Passion of Jesus. 

For Christians, this new, purified temple would not be of stone and wood and gold but a living temple of people (I Peter 2:4-6; Ephesians 2:19-22).  All of the sacredness and beauty and longing that Israel lavished on the Temple, Christians now center on the Church its
elf.  In this temple, not built by hands, were to be found not only the strong and the successful and the beautiful but those we are often tempted to exclude from our sacred zones:  the poor, the disabled, the old and the unwanted.  Jesus had never excluded them; they were his people and, therefore, they would have access to his new temple.  For those who follow Jesus there is no place or building that holds us together. 

There is no rock or inner sanctuary somewhere that contains God’s essence.  Our sacred city is neither Jerusalem nor Rome, despite the reverence we hold for these places.  For us the zone of the sacred is a living community of people –united by faith in Jesus and the God of compassion he revealed to us.  Long ago, Paul, who loved the Temple in Jerusalem, reminded the contentious and divided Christians of Corinth of a new reality:  “Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God?  You are not your own; you were bought with a price” (I Corinthians 6:19-20).  Therefore we are God’s Zion; we are the Temple. 

Both Mount Moriah and Mount Calvary are significant places of vision in the bible.  For on both mountains, we see a God who never abandons us in our deepest despair, terror and death.  God is with us through thick and thin, through day and night.  Jews, Christians and Muslims exist to reveal the holiness of God’s name and God’s sovereignty over all creation.  In a world filled with so many voices and things demanding first place, Judaism, Christianity and Islam recognize God as sovereign over all creation.  Together we yearn for the day when swords will be turned into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks… in Jerusalem, in the Holy Lands, and throughout the world. 

In conclusion, I offer the prayer of Blessed John Paul II written for the World Day of Peace in 2002.

O God, Creator of the universe,
who extends your paternal concern over every creature
and guides the events of history to the goal of salvation,
we acknowledge your fatherly love
when you break the resistance of mankind and,
in a world torn by strife and discord, you make us ready for reconciliation.
Renew for us the wonders of your mercy;that enemies may begin to dialogue, that adversaries may shake hands
and peoples may encounter one another in harmony.
May all commit themselves to the sincere search
for true peace which will extinguish all arguments,
for charity which overcomes hatred, for pardon which disarms revenge.

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Thomas Rosica

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