Rosh Hashana, which ushers in the start of Judaism's High Holy Days at sundown tonight, is known as the Jewish New Year. By the Hebrew calendar, the holiday marks the creation of the world 5756 years ago.
"It's a time of year when you look over the past year to see if you were a good person and see if you can be a better person," said Ben Hoffman, a vending company owner in Pikesville's Chizuk Amuno congregation. "When you were a kid you played outside the synagogue until your father pulled you in by the ear, but I get a lot more out of it now, just sitting and reflecting."
The symbol of Rosh Hashana is the image of God opening the book of life and running his finger down the log of human rights and wrongs to determine who will suffer and who will prosper in the coming year.
Yet, to relegate Rosh Hashana only to the status of New Year's Day -- one year gone, another one nigh with only a few moments of reflection after the ram's horn is blown -- is to miss its greatness.
"Happy New Year is not the core of Rosh Hashana. It's the secularization of it, and our secular culture is incredibly impoverished spiritually," said Rabbi Daniel Lehmann, principal of Beth Tfiloh upper school on Old Court Road. "In original scriptural texts, the name most associated with it is Yom Hazikaron -- the Day of Remembrance. It's a day when God remembers and judges us and our deeds, but also the celebration of the creation of the human being."
It was along these lines that Rabbi Lehmann lectured Beth Tfiloh seventh-graders on Friday about Rosh Hashana. From the Genesis story and the commentaries it inspired, he connected the creation of the world to the issue of equality among peoples.
"There's an incredible statement in the Talmud which asks: 'Why was the human being created as a singular individual?' When man creates a mold for something, like coins, all the coins look alike. But when God creates from one mold, Adam, everybody is made different. That's a reflection of God's greatness. The implications is that the uniqueness of the individual is to be valued. If everybody is equal in some basic way, yet the diversity of the world is something to be praised, what implications does that have for our behavior? To me, that's what Rosh Hashana is about."
The High Holy Days, which end in a week-and-a-half with the day of atonement known as Yom Kippur, draw more people to synagogue than any other time of the year. Many rabbis gear up for the big crowds with their best sermons, and some will chide their congregations for absences the rest of the year.
Rabbi Mark Loeb, who has served the 1,700-family Beth El congregation in Pikesville for 20 years, will be gentle with his people. "It's insulting to criticize them when they come to do that which they think is right," Rabbi Loeb said. "Instead of asking 'Where were you?' I thank them for coming.
"[American] culture is filled with meaningless fads that are timely but not timeless," the rabbi said. "At Rosh Hashana, we come to recover the best of ourselves."