Twin Holidays of Creation

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My latest blog post for The Jewish Journal:

Rosh Hashanah celebrates the creation of the world. Yom Kippur is the Day of Atonement. They seem quite different.

But what if they’re not so different after all?

I’m not a rabbi and I don’t play one on television, but I can tell you what I think: Both holidays celebrate creation, but from different perspectives.

Multiple perspectives occur often in our tradition. The Book of Genesis first gives a cosmos-level view of the world’s creation in 1:1-2:3 and then retells the story from a more personal, ground-level view in 2:4-24. Similarly, Exodus 6:2-7:13 gives a high-level view of Moses’ appointment by God, and Exodus 3:1-6:1 gives a more detailed and personal view of the same events.

But how could Yom Kippur be “another view” of Rosh Hashanah? What’s the evidence?

Our first clue is the date: Yom Kippur is the 10th day of the new year. Biblical scholar Nahum Sarna remarks that for our ancestors, “the tenth day of the month in which the New Year falls must carry special significance, though in what way currently eludes us.”

Here’s a thought: In Jewish and Gentile tradition, the number 10 signifies completeness and perfection.

It’s the sum of both the first four counting numbers (1, 2, 3, and 4) and of two sacred numbers (3 and 7). Exodus 20:2-14 gives 10 Commandments (Buddhism also has 10 commandments, five for monks and five for laypeople). The Kabbalah says that God created the world by 10 utterances, using 10 Sefirot as channels for the Divine energy. There are 10 generations from Adam and Noah, and then from Noah to Abraham. God says (Genesis 18:32) that He will spare Sodom if Abraham can find 10 innocent men in it. Ten men complete a minyan.

It suggests that Yom Kippur, the 10th day of the new year, might be about completing something. But what? Creation? And completion by whom?

Our second clue is the number of days (40) between the first of Elul and Yom Kippur. Forty indicates transition, change, renewal, and new beginning.

Moses was on Mount Sinai for 40 days; in the Biblical flood story, it rained 40 days to purify the earth; and in the Kabbalah, each of the four corners of the world contains all 10 Sefirot, totaling 40. It’s often similar in non-Jewish traditions. The Babylonians celebrated a new year’s feast when the Pleiades reappeared after being gone for 40 days. In England, the ancient site of Stonehenge has 40 giant stone pillars in a circle with diameter 40.

Our third clue is the Biblical text itself, in the light of the fact that 10 symbolizes completion and 40 symbolizes transition. Yom Kippur means a completion that causes a transition.

From Genesis 1:1-25 at each step of creation, God assesses his work and sees that it is “good.” But then He creates human beings in His image, as self-aware beings who can choose what they do and how they live. After that, what He has created is no longer merely good: it is “very good.” God no longer has to work alone. We become His junior partners in creation, adding a human moral dimension to physical reality.

Rosh Hashanah celebrates the creation of the physical world, which is good. Yom Kippur reminds us that the physical world by itself is incomplete. It’s up to us to finish it by the choices we make. God gave us a world, but what we do with it is up to us. God gave us a choice, but what we choose is up to us. God will not stop us from choosing foolishly or destructively. The responsibility to choose wisely is ours.

Yom Kippur asks the most fundamental moral question of life: What kind of person do you want to be? Our answer determines the kind of world we will help God create.

In this new year, let’s make it a better one.

About N.S. Palmer

N.S. Palmer is an American mathematician.
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