By Rabbi Levi Greenberg
In January 2020, Menachem Wecker from Religion News Service asked me how it felt to be one of the only conspicuously dressed Jews in El Paso. He was preparing a story about the challenges facing the global Jewish community following a wave of anti-Semitic attacks targeting Jewish houses of worship, community centers, shops and even Jewish looking pedestrians.
Instead of focusing exclusively on metropolitan areas with large communities, he wanted to understand the experience in a border town with a small community.
Thankfully, I have never personally encountered anti-Semitism in El Paso, am treated with respect and dignity despite my dress code, and told him so. But what happens around the world matters everywhere, and unfortunately El Paso suffered terribly from such hatred and bigotry with the horrifying Walmart shooting just six months before my interview.
I reflect on this conversation now as we prepare for the Jewish festival of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, because the essential theme of the holiday and its liturgy provides a powerful antidote to all forms of intolerance plaguing humanity.
On Sunday evening, Sept. 25, Jews around the world will celebrate with prayers, contemplation, festive meals and traditional foods. The centerpiece of the two-day festival is the sounding of the Shofar (ram’s horn), symbolic of our submission to G-d, our celebration of life up to the present and our supplications for a good and sweet new year.
This day was designated as the New Year because, as recorded in the Book of Genesis, Adam and Eve, the first humans, were created on the sixth day of creation which, according to Jewish tradition, coincides with the day of Rosh Hashanah. The liturgy of the day centers around this theme as well.
Shortly after Rosh Hashanah in 1991, a terrible anti-Semitic incident occurred in front of a Warsaw synagogue. Arkadiusz Rybicki, the president of the recently formed Presidential Council for Polish-Jewish Relations, wrote a letter to the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, expressing his horror at the incident, his assurance that the perpetrators would be prosecuted, and that Polish President Lech Walesa condemned such behavior. He concluded with the fervent hope that intolerance and prejudice will disappear from the Polish people, and was working towards that goal.
In response, the Rebbe appreciated this sentiment and shared a powerful lesson from Rosh Hashanah that could lead to the materialization of this fervent hope most people share.
“Our Sages of the Talmud explain why the creation of man differed from the creation of other living species and why, among other things, man was created as a single individual, unlike other living creatures created in pairs. One of the reasons – our Sages declare – is that it was G‑d’s design that the human race, all humans everywhere and at all times, should know that each and all descend from the one and the same single progenitor, a fully developed human being created in the image of G‑d, so that no human being could claim superior ancestral origin; hence would also find it easier to cultivate a real feeling of kinship in all inter-human relationships.”
“Indeed, although Rosh Hashanah is a Jewish festival, our prayers for a Happy New Year include also all the nations and dwellers on earth. And true happiness includes everyone’s peace and prosperity both materially and spiritually.”
No interpretation is necessary. We all have the ability to promote this attitude to life, and bring about the realization of an era of true peace and tranquility for all humanity, through spending some time each day in quiet contemplation or prayer and increasing in acts of goodness and kindness.
Best wishes for a good and sweet new year for all.
Rosh Hashanah will be celebrated on Sunday evening, Sept. 25, through Tuesday, Sept. 27 at nightfall. To learn more about Rosh Hashanah please visit chabadelpaso.com/highholidays.
Levi Greenberg is associate rabbi of Chabad Lubavitch of El Paso.