My son, Efraim, seldom strikes me as more Jewish than when he says the following words: “I don’t want to go to Hebrew School.” This past Sunday, I took him for his first day. He was in the once-a-month, parent-child program last year, but now he’s expected to go every week, with neither Elise nor I there to console him. It was a bit of a dance to get him to stay. My goal had been to drop him off quickly, then abscond to my office to work on this sermon. But he clung to me when I presented him in the small sanctuary for opening prayers. I sat down with him on the floor, and tried to call his attention to the kids in the room that he already knew. I cajoled him. I tried to leverage his allowance–five quarters a week–as incentive. But he was reluctant to let go of me. Finally, with his teacher calling the children to attention, I promised Efraim I would check on him later, if only he would follow the group down to their classroom. This did the trick. Of his own volition, he handed me the stuffy he had brought with him, for safekeeping. It was a “hippopotabat”, as he kept telling the teacher, who thought it was a dragon. Then he took his place, first in line and the smallest of them all, and went downstairs, and I realized that I had an introduction to the topic I want to talk with you about today.
But first, let’s take a little journey back in time.
It’s common to explain Rosh Hashanah to little children by playing up its identity as “the birthday of the world.” You can make cards, even sing happy birthday. This seems more age-appropriate than intimidating them with the story of God inscribing and sealing our fates for the coming year. Who doesn’t love a birthday party? But where does this notion that Rosh Hashanah is the birthday of the world even come from? Certainly not from the Torah, in which this day isn’t even described as a new year celebration. The Mishnah calls it new year, but one among a handful, with its implications relating mostly to tax assessment. Though at the culmination of the musaf prayer today, we will intone the phrase hayom harat olam–“today the world stands at its birth”–this sentiment is immediately subsumed into the “judgement and repentance” motif, as if the only implication of being invited to the world’s birthday party is that you better be good, for goodness sake. While we understand it as the ending and the beginning of a cycle, there seems to be a link, buried deeply within its historical memory, between this holiday and the very order of creation, whose significance we have largely forgotten.
But don’t worry, I think I found it, and in a very old place. While in the exercise of comparative religion we are more used to examining ourselves alongside our Abrahamic brethren–Christians and Muslims–we should recall that the roots of our tradition, our rituals and our myths, reach all the way back to the ancient Near East. Therefore, if we want to understand ourselves better, it might be worthwhile to make an examination in the light of our Assyrian and Babylonian cousins.
New year festivals were a dominant feature of Mesopotamian religion, and their connection to creation stories was abundantly clear. We know the most about a Babylonian holiday called Akitu. Its name was a Sumerian word meaning barley, and it could be held at one of two points in the rhythm of the cultivation of this quickest of the grains; either when it was sowed in the fall, before the rains came, or, more commonly, in the spring, around the time of Passover, when it was harvested. But cosmic matters were emphasized over and above the agricultural, and it was in this vein that the multi-day celebration was understood to mark the beginning of the world, at least as the Babylonians knew it. To invoke the meaning of the season, they recited the Enuma Elish, the great creation myth that originated in the Bronze Age, and was recovered in fragmentary form on clay tablets in Mosul, Iraq, site of the ancient city of Nineveh, by a 19th century British archeologist.
This remarkable story describes the emergence of the ordered world out of the body of a slain goddess, the result of a battle that broke out between generational factions of a pantheon of deities. This is how it begins–I hope you will pardon my rusty Paleo-Babylonian–“Enuma elish la na-bu-u sha-ma-mu.”
When the sky above was not named,
And the earth beneath did not yet bear a name,
And the primeval Apsû, who begat them,
And chaos, Tiamat, the mother of them both,
Their waters were mingled together,
And no field was formed, no marsh was to be seen;
When of the gods none had been called into being…
As the story advances, the emerging divinities form cohorts and war with each other, with Tiamat, in particular, the goddess of oceanic disorder, threatening the well-being of many of the others. So they anoint as their champion a young upstart, Marduk, and he battles Tiamat and her minions on their behalf. Killing her, he fashions the world from her body:
He split her like a shellfish into two parts:
Half of her he set up as the ceiling of the sky,
He pulled down the bar and posted guards.
He ordered them not to allow her waters to escape.
…He determined the year by assigning the zones:
He set up three constellations for each of the twelve months.
In so doing, Marduk becomes, if not the creator god himself, then the champion of civilization; the bringer of order, making predictable human life possible through the vanquishing of watery chaos.
The text is even more gripping and violent than these selected passages are able to convey. It’s also important to remember that the Enuma Elish, at least in this version, was not a stand-alone literary work but ceremonial scripture, much like our own Torah readings, read to establish the mythic context for the celebration of Akitu, because, in the words of one commentator, “each New Year shared something with the beginning of time, when the world was created and the cycle of the seasons started.” Creation, in this sense, is the very text of the new year, and it follows from this that the nature of the creation described informs the social, spiritual, and emotional burden of the new years celebration.
Archeologists and historians, through some art of divination that has so far escaped me, have purported to describe for us the progression of the Akitu festival. Its first days were somber, with the populace given over to a contemplation of the uncertainties of the future, brought into sharp relief by the changing of the year–perhaps reciting their own version of unetanah tokef: who shall live, and who shall die? Enuma Elish was chanted, and meanwhile a version of the great myth played out in the form of a pageant, in which it was imagined that Marduk had been kidnapped and imprisoned in a sacred mountain. Once again, his cohort battled with the forces of Tiamat for his release, and when this was achieved it was understood as a reaffirmation of the primal victory of order over chaos. At the same time, a parallel drama played out on the political level. The king of Nineveh, who ruled by divine right of Marduk and was his avatar, was stripped of crown and scepter, and removed from his throne. Then, unless scholars are grossly misreading the original Sumero-Akkadian script, he was slapped hard across the face, a number of times, by the high priest. It was considered an auspicious sign if this brought him to tears. Then, as Marduk’s order was reestablished, the vanished king was restored to his seat and a sacred marriage was effected between him and the personification of the fertility goddess Innana, after which all was once again right with the world.
And you thought it was exciting to sit in shul all morning then go home and eat honey cake!
I think we can deduce from this material that the fundamental connection between the new year and the story of creation–the nexus that gives us the notion of the birthday of the world–has to do with the interplay between a need for order and an intimation of chaos; the effort of human beings to construct a dependable basis for existence, and the anxiety created when this aspiration is threatened by the less than dependable forces of nature and fate. Once a year, this dilemma would be brought into focus through a ritual that called attention to the god credited with establishing and insuring the cosmic order against an ever-lapping turmoil; a ceremony to allay our fears through a kind of controlled release, even a little bit playful, in which powerful beings were removed from their necessary places–allowing for a measured taste of chaos–only to be restored promptly and convincingly, just as grains of barley must be scattered in order to sprout.
You may have already picked up on the similarities between the Enuma Elish and our own creation story out of Genesis. In both tales, the world is made of some preexisting material, rather than ex nihilo, out of nothing. We read in Genesis, viha’aretz hayta tohu vavohu–and the planet, such as it was, was void and without form, as if the storyteller is trying to convey the same primeval chaos while deliberately refraining from personifying it. But the phrase continues, v’khosekh al piney tihom, commonly rendered as “and there was darkness over the face of the abyss,” though my iconoclastic middle-school Bible teacher, of blessed memory, taught us to hear in the Hebrew word tihom a resonance of Tiamat and the tumult of the watery deep, v’ruakh elohim mirakhefet al pinei hamayim, and the divine spirit somehow troubling the ocean. Then a masterful God asserts order over the wild and unformed, bringing light out of darkness, separating the waters and drawing out dry land, and establishing the calendrical regularity of the heavenly bodies–just as Marduk does in the Enuma Elish–everything in its right place. Of course, there are differences, all emanating out of the theological shift from polytheism to a cosmos governed by a lone god, the most significant being that in the Bible’s understanding, humanity does not subsist perilously amidst the thunderous warring of the gods, but at the mercy of a God who has complete control. This point might be emphasized through a comparison of the flood myths that exist both in the Bible and the Babylonian tradition. Both cultures understand that an order established through the holding back of raging waters can be undone, but whereas the Babylonians chalk it up to another round of internecine strife in the pantheon, the Biblical writer attributes it to human failing. This also explains why on their new years day, the Babylonians rehearsed creation, and celebrated the reestablishment of the god who was their champion, whereas we are given over to repentance and atonement, seeking to win the favor of the God holding all the cards.
I’ll admit that my own heart is hung somewhere between these two stories. From the Bible, we learn the power of our own agency. If we want the water held at bay then–aleynu–it is up to us, to do right by God, by the planet, by our fellow human beings. But, apart from the delight my imagination takes in immersing itself in the vivid details of its rituals and myths, I sometimes wonder if the polytheistic conception doesn’t strike a little closer to a naturalistic truth, speaking more directly to the relentlessness of human vulnerability in the midst of clashing forces, and the fact that we will not always be saved, even if we do the right thing. At the same time, I recognize that Akitu was the ritual of an imperial capital, and that its completion might have imbued the powers-that-be with the same smug certainty as any monotheistic devotee who believes he has gotten God on his side, to say nothing of the feminist critique I am sure has already been launched post facto against the celebration of a patriarchal order established upon a brutalized female body. So I find myself trying to split the difference, endeavoring, in the absence of any certainty, to uncover in this birthday of the world a story and a symbol that will ground my spirit, while orienting it toward the equivocal reality it must face. It is at this moment I recall that the Torah’s genius lies in the fact that most of it takes place in a wilderness.
The Torah tells its own version of the story of a vanished king, and a god entrapped on a mountain. In Exodus, after transmitting the ten commandments, Moses reclimbs Mount Sinai to commune with God, telling the people he will be back in forty days. But when he tarries, the people grow fearful, feeling in the pit of their stomachs the real version of the anxiety the inhabitants of Nineveh pantomimed on their festival. What they feel is the mortal gape of chaos, the undoing of their own fledgling sense of order against the backdrop of the oceanic heat and sand of the desert. What they try to do is fill it, as you might feed an addiction, with an object or a substance, a golden calf, a vulgar presence jammed into their need, around which they run riot, surrendering the capacity to cogitate the reality of their circumstance. Moses returns and the matter is attended to. But when he goes back up to God, disheartened, he enacts within a singular human frame the drama that has just played out on a national scale. “I want to see you,” he says to God. “I want you to come down off this mountain. I want the presence. I want the certainty.” And God responds with what is perhaps the truest statement ascribed to him in the entire Bible: that’s not how it works. Then they resume their interrupted conversation, which, coincidentally, was about how to make sacred objects out of gold. There were to be two cherubim, angelic figurines, facing each other with their wings outspread, set like a throne on the cover of the ark of the covenant in the inner recess of an exquisitely ordered, collapsible and portable, linen tent, known as the mishkan, the dwelling place, and sheltering between their wings the most sacred icon of this new spirituality, which was: nothing. An empty space. An absence. Like a hole cut through the middle of the calf, or the seat of a king who has not returned, or the expectation of a god who never leaves the mountain all the way. Instead of false certainty, or an eternal promise of order, it was a pregnant emptiness, a focal point to keep the mind open to revelation, an absence to make the heart grow, a way of facing up to the daily task of wandering in a wilderness without any assurance that all is well; a piece of chaos enshrined in the heart of order. Moses brought this vision down to the people and they assembled it with mature skill and dignified enthusiasm, and when they were through, the Midrash tells us, they checked to see what day it was. It was the first of Nissan, which, by biblical reckoning, made it the first day of the year.
Hayom harat olam. Today is the world’s birthday party. Today is the day we assert that there is order in the world, and strive to feel a sense of stability on which to base the journey of our lives. But if there were ever a time in human history to assume that, with the ceremony complete, the year to come was assured, it is most certainly not ours. Instead, we seek, if not in the presence of the king or the god then in the ritual itself and in ourselves, the container, the open embrace, the two cherubim that face each other and provide some kind of endurable vacancy through which we can accept the task of aligning ourselves now toward the indefinite and the uncertain; like a child, putting down his golden calf, his particolored hippopotabat, and letting go his father’s hand to enter the unknown.