How can we not smile back at the adorable faces of the two youngsters looking at us in the photo above? True, the photo is staged. It is, after all, a Rosh Hashanah greeting intended to evoke cheerful, positive feelings in us.
The young boy and girl nearly glow with happiness, their innocent, guileless faces looking directly at us. The cake they are carrying is undoubtedly the very essence of the figurative sweetness we pray for as blessing for the coming year, for others and ourselves. Underneath the colourful, decorative icing there is likely a traditional honey cake. Perhaps that explains why the youngsters are smiling? They were promised the first pieces!
If we look very carefully at the photo, we will notice that there is a third child in the photo as well. He or she is holding the large poster with the Hebrew letters that spell the greeting “Shanah Tovah.” All we see of him or her, alas, are the little fingers on either side of the poster.
That this particular greeting is entirely child-centred is a wholly fitting entry to the holiday we will celebrate in just a few days. Our minds are usually so preoccupied with worries for the world, for the community, for ourselves, that we sometimes forget this because our first association with Rosh Hashanah, indeed with the 10-day period leading up to Yom Kippur is of self-assessment, renewal and new beginnings.
But our ancient sages were quite clear about the centrality to the holiday of the references to children. They designed the structure of the observance to ensure it. They wanted our children – all children – to be a key fulcrum in the weighing of the measure of our achievements and our purposes in the grand balance of Creation we call life.
Each Torah portion and prophetic Haftorah of the two-day holiday deals explicitly with the story of a child.
The Torah reading for the first day of Rosh Hashanah tells of the birth of Isaac, his growth into young adulthood and the banishment of his older half-brother, Ishmael, from their father’s tent.
The Haftorah on the first day describes Hannah’s poignant plea for a son and of the birth of the boy who eventually grows up to become the prophet Samuel.
The Torah reading on the second day tells the perplexing story of the binding of Isaac. The Haftorah is a movingly eloquent, mere 18-verse passage by the prophet Jeremiah that connects the three previous readings into a heart-rending but forthright statement about our children and us, their parents. It evokes the image of the bitter tenderness of a mother’s tears for her children. As translated by renowned American poet David Rosenberg, some of those verses are: “Rachel mourns her children/ refusing all comfort, all soothing/ all her hope gone blind/ her children gone/ yet these are the Lord’s words/ your voice will cease its weeping/ your eyes brighten behind the tears/ that dissolve into a crystal-clear vision/ of the children alive/ returning home/ from the lands of enemies/ from beyond anguish to hope revived.”
On Rosh Hashanah, the ancient sages deliberately direct our thoughts and our hearts to our children. The duty we have to the world, they are saying to us, is through our children. Think of the future of the world on this holiday, build it strong, make it better, the sages command us, so that our children will have the benefit of its goodness and of its vast beauty and – equally as important – so that they will see, learn and pass forward to their own children the example of caring for others they saw in their parents and grandparents.
At the very heart of the services, just before we read from the Torah and Haftorah, we chant the prayer Avinu Malkeinu. It delivers an enormous emotional wallop as a result of the combination of its stark poetry and its plaintive melody. It is probably one of the most familiar prayers of the holiday liturgy. “Our Father, our King, be compassionate with us, our children and our infants,” we sobbingly plead of God.
And His answer to our plea perhaps is found near the end of Jeremiah’s prophecy, again as translated by David Rosenberg: “Is Ephraim not my dear one/ says the Lord/ dear as an only child/ that whenever I speak of him/ I am filled with remembering/ and my heart goes out to him/ to welcome him back/ to receive him with love/ with mercy, says the Lord.”
As we were once children and “received with love,” it is we now, as parents and grandparents, aunts and uncles, friends and colleagues who must bestow love. But, as every parent knows, to love is to do. Words of love alone might be good in music. But they are not adequate in the real world. Without deeds – the myriad sacrifices, the sheer, hard work, sitting up all night with a child, the cool cloth against a fevered forehead, the song that soothes against nightmares, the hand that holds a worried child steady – words alone are empty measures in raising children. In the custodianship of God’s world, we are all parents. And all the children of God’s world are our children. For their sake, let us build a better world.