It’s common knowledge that Rosh Hashanah, the first day of the Hebrew month of Tishrei, is the Jewish new year. And yet, despite the obvious importance of this High Holy Day, the Bible quite clearly stipulates another month entirely as marking the true beginning of the Jewish year. That is the month of Nisan, whose first day falls this year on Saturday, April 6. By dint of its connection to the story of the Exodus from Egypt, Nisan would indeed seem to be the most important month of all.
Jewish history has not always been characterized by laughter, but in Genesis it evokes the freedom and joy of a life in partnership with God.
Last week’s Torah reading of Lekh-L’kha (Genesis 12-17) tells the story of the birth of Abraham’s elder son Ishmael. By contrast, this week’s reading of Vayera (Genesis 18-22) has at its center the birth of his younger son Isaac. I say “by contrast” because, from the very start, beginning with the circumstances of their birth and their respective names, the text makes the difference between the two boys especially stark. Nor are these differences just a matter of literary curiosity; rather, they present divergent ways of relating to God.
An American Jew’s experience of the Jewish holidays is inextricably linked to the American calendar, to regional weather patterns and to the distinct geographies of his or her surroundings. It’s hard for me to imagine the period of Rosh Hashanah through Sukkot without thinking of the onset of autumn, of leaves that are beginning to change colors, cool evenings and fall harvest vegetables. The fall carries with it its own rich poetic symbolism – a yellow leaf can signify the fall from Eden, decisions that can’t be undone, or the flourishing of love in face of the inevitability of death. So what does this all have to do with the Jewish New Year? Not much if you live in a climate where autumn is not as pronounced. Yet for an American Jewish writer like Emma Lazarus, the grandeur of the the Jewish New Year is inextricably linked to its seasonal setting: