But in Israel the holidays come as no surprise. Weeks before the chagim begin, store clerks and passersby say goodbye or greet you by wishing "Shana Tova [Happy New Year]," television commercials are dominated by Rosh Hashanah-themed products, and the streets are papered with fliers advertising pre-holiday seminars of all kinds. And then, unique to Israel, there's the opportunity to visit the Jerusalem Biblical Zoo. Last year, a pre-holidays trip to the zoo was one of the most meaningful reminders of the themes of the holidays that I've ever had.
The zoo's mission is to preserve endangered species, with a particular--though not exclusive--focus on animals mentioned in the Bible. To pound the biblical message home, the visitors' center is housed in a large ark. But beyond its kitschy and touristy elements, the zoo masterfully highlights the marvels of creation.
The Jerusalem Biblical Zoo is built in a valley on the southwestern outskirts of the city, past the mall and the soccer stadium. A small man-made lake occupies the center of the valley, and the main path winds around the lake, bobbing and weaving to expose visitors to each of the habitats created for various species. Unlike the ultra-deluxe mega-zoos that feature multi-million dollar buildings to house certain species in habitats that match their native ecosystems, the Biblical Zoo, presumably like its predecessor in preservation, Noah's Ark, has a simple aesthetic. Within that basic aesthetic, the Zoo manages, in a way that is humane and accessible, to present endangered animals from all corners of the world, even those--lemurs, flamingos, penguins-- completely incongruous in the desert climes of Jerusalem. That accessibility, the closeness of the animals and the minimal structures separating us from them, allows, even standing in the desert with a repro ark looming nearby, an unusual intimacy with nature.
Standing on a walkway while a giraffe strained its neck for the few extra centimeters it needed to reach the long, lush grass near my feet; making extended eye contact with a wallabee; watching ring-tailed lemurs swing in the trees and hippos bathe, it was impossible to escape the majesty of the natural world.
There, amidst the animals, just a few days before the High Holidays, I heard a metaphorical shofar call in the trumpet of the elephants and the insistent cawing of the parrots. Rosh Hashanah came alive to me as much more than merely the start of the new year. Unbidden, from recesses of memory I did not know I had, the liturgy of the shofar service echoed in my head: "Hayom horat olam, This is the birthday of the world, the anniversary of creation." Rosh Hashanah transformed from my egg-timer view of the holiday as a time for self-reflection into an animating force for a broader understanding of repentance and renewal.
As I walked to synagogue on Rosh Hashanah days later, through Jerusalem streets redolent with the fragrance of honeysuckle, I tried to keep the zoo in mind, to see every tree, every firefly, every one of the city's countless stray cats, as a reminder of creation. Once the service started, I tried not to let its familiar words and rhythms pull me too fully back into my habitual approach to the holiday. Each time the breeze carried cool air and the sound of crickets through the window, I thought of the zoo animals and tried to take seriously the idea that Rosh Hashanah is an opportunity to celebrate creation. The logical consequence of this is that the Days of Awe--the stretch between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur--take on a new, more literally awesome, sensibility. In the face of nature, the only possible response is fundamental awe. That awe has many facets, from wondrous appreciation to befuddlement, from a joyous sense of belonging to a fearful unease in the face of the sublime. All of those aspects are part of what we mark on Rosh Hashanah, as we give thanks for creation and, in so doing, confront our place within it.
In the first hour the idea of creating man entered God's mind, in the second God took counsel with the Ministering Angels, in the third God assembled Adam's dust, in the fourth God kneaded it, in the fifth God shaped him, in the sixth God made him into a lifeless body, in the seventh God breathed a soul into him, in the eighth God brought him into the Garden of Eden, in the ninth he was commanded [against eating the fruit of the tree of knowledge], in the tenth he transgressed, in the eleventh he was judged, in the twelfth he was pardoned. 'This,' said God to Adam, 'will be a sign to your children. As you stood in judgment before Me this day and came out with a free pardon, so will your children in the future stand in judgment before Me on this day and will come out from My presence with a free pardon.' (Vayikrah Rabbah 29:1)In this telling, the primary source of awe is God's omnipotent power. This complements the biblical text, in which nature's wonders are extolled and prove so tremendous as to tempt Adam to disobey God almost immediately. This epitomizes the multi-layered content of the Mishnah, establishing a from-day-one tradition of Rosh Hashanah as the time of personal accounting, but building that lesson upon a firm foundation of the creation story.
By approaching the High Holidays not solely as a time of personal reevaluation, but as an opportunity to consider our places--individually and communally--in creation as a whole, we can give more depth to the holidays and provide more fertile ground for teshuvah. In this view, the holidays are a balance: we celebrate creation and then have ten days to consider how we treat others. We cannot be so concerned with our own results, our daily lives, that we diminish those of creation, either the initial creation (whatever you believe that may be) or the ongoing process in which we partner with the divine presence in making a better world. As partners in creation, we cannot demean or diminish, harm or harass, other people in the pursuit of our goals, however worthy. When we do, we tarnish creation. Yom Kippur, then, is an opportunity to repair the damage we have done to creation over the past year, and to re-consecrate ourselves as partners in the ongoing process of creation. The Book of Life is more than a register of who shall live and who shall die; it is a collection of contracts, with each of us signing on for another year of living fully by actively partnering with God.
From this perspective, despite the competing calendars, Rosh Hashanah comes at the perfect time. At the onset of fall, the weather is beginning to change; summer, the season of lushness and robust life, is fading into fall, the season of slow decay and packing up in preparation for winter. The metaphor of the Book of Life is all the more powerful in the fall, because only those who sign up for another year of helping advance creation can be assured of reaching the next spring, the season of life and birth and all the excitement and glory of creation. The chagim offer us hope as the world around us begins the descent from lushness toward bleakness.
None of this is to dismiss the importance of self-reflection around the holidays. One cannot fully make a commitment without taking inventory, in an honest assessment, of personal strengths and weaknesses. And a commitment to partner in creation is no light obligation. But by also looking beyond ourselves and focusing on creation, we can find another level of meaning, purpose and resonance in the holidays. This year, among the myriad pre-holiday study sessions, I hope there's one at the zoo. You can count me in.