Interpreting Rosh Hashana – the head of the year

(Photo: Unsplash/Jackson David)

This Shabbat we will be reciting the Sedra of Nitzavim (Deuteronomy 29:9 – 30:20) when G-d renews His covenant with the children of Israel. On the last day of Moses' life, G-d tells the Jewish people through him to 'stand firm', all of them – young and old, male and female, whatever their station. For G-d, it is individuals who count – individuals who see themselves as part of the larger whole.

Moses reminds the people of their ancestors, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, with whom G-d also made the covenant, just as He is doing today and – most important of all – which He will do in the future as well, with all those yet to be born.

This biblical portion of Nitzavim is read on the Shabbat before Rosh Hashana – the 'Head of the Year', which this year falls on the following Shabbat (19 September.

Rosh Hashana is designated the 'birthday of the entire world' and this time of year is regarded as a time for reflection and contemplation.

For me personally, I always think back to that day in August 2002 when my elder daughter emigrated to Israel. It was the middle of the second Intifada – the most dangerous time to go, at least in the minds of many - and she had a very good job here in London. But the decision was made and off she went.

The following year – in 2003 – we went to visit her. At midnight the night before we left, there was a knock at the door. There stood the President of the Manchester Jewish community with a book in her hand – it was the Harry Potter latest, hot off the press. Could I possibly (if it wasn't too much trouble of course) take it as a gift to her elder grandson – it had just been published and would mean so much for her and for him.

I would do anything for my friend – hadn't her daughter in Israel taken in my younger daughter when fatal terrorist attacks at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and elsewhere in the city had threatened to bring her back to England?

And also, I understood the ties with the English language – one way a bit of England would remain forever Israel, so to speak in the mind and heart of a young boy of around 13.

The trouble was that this was not long after the terrorist attacks of 9/11 and airport luggage restrictions were tight. So I clung onto the latest Harry Potter for dear life, planning to read it myself on the plane, and sailed through the airport at Manchester and into the other end at Tel Aviv, people smiling broadly and encouragingly from beginning to end. I truly felt as a pilgrim must have felt in the Middle Ages, Bible at his side.

Naturally, Harry Potter was greeted the other end with elation and helped to cement ties between our families. And then a few years later, I myself left for Israel and was phoned on arrival in Haifa by my friend in Jerusalem. Her son, having imbibed the whole of Harry Potter, and lots more, was now representing the State of Israel in the Asia Science Olympiad in Bejing and could he stay with me while attending last minute arrangements being held at nearby Haifa Technion. Well yes, of course he could. Was Israel really part of Asia, I wondered – the thought had never entered my head before.

Haifa in August 2006 was trying its best to recover from the aftermath of the 2nd Lebanon War, which had nearly destroyed the morale of the city – with shops closed and people evacuated around the rest of the country. But one bright light on the horizon was the imminent publication of a local PhD being finalized at the University of Haifa, which had taken the fancy of the Israeli press.

I attended a talk on this topic given by the author herself in Haifa – and very interesting it was too.

Meanwhile, the Harry Potter books were being translated into modern Hebrew by Gili Bar-Hillel. But now the book has been translated into Yiddish as well, just squaring a circle – for the themes of the books remind us so much of the best kind of Yiddish literature.

Thus must the scholars of old have eagerly awaited the latest editions of the Bible and commentaries.

I first became interested in translation 'at my mother's knee', as they say – she was foreign and constantly being reminded of the fact, and I was trying to help her with English. But then we studied John Milton's 'Paradise Regained' at school and Milton's immortal words took on special meaning:

'What in me is dark / Illumine, what is low raise and support / That to the highth of this great Argument / I may assert Eternal Providence, / And justifie the ways of G-d to man.'

To me, 'justify[ing] the ways of G-d to man' meant one thing – redemption through translation.

So, as we read these final words of G-d via Moses to the children of Israel, and stand fast towards the new Jewish year of 5781, (even if finding an outside spot where shofar blowing is possible may be difficult), we should remember one thing, that there is no more noble art than that of translation – of interpreting from one person to another, from one country to another and from one religion to another.

Interpretation is the key – the way in which we are best enabled to 'justify the ways of G-d to man'.

For this is how the book of 'standing fast' ends (Exodus 30:11 -14):

'Because this commandment that I command you today – it is not hidden from you and it is not distant. It is not in heaven, [for you] to say: 'Who can ascend to the heaven for us and take it for us, so that we can listen to it and then carry it through?' Nor is it across the sea, [for you] to say, 'Who can cross to the other side of the sea for us and take it for us, so that we can listen to it and carry it through?' Rather, the word/action is very near to you – in your mouth and in your heart – to carry it through.'

So with these lines, G-d is bestowing a very great gift – a gift to a people in danger of becoming enslaved once again, whom He 'brought out of Egypt, out of the house of bondage' in order that they might become a free people ready to serve him.

And how can the Jewish people – and others who want to join in the task – carry all this through? By constant vigilance, attention and devotion to duty – the devotion and duty that can turn the incredibly British Harry Potter into the world of chutzapdik Israeli sabras and also into the world of Yiddish magic in which Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone can become (in Hebrew letters of course) Harry Potter un der filosofisher steyn.

And just think about this: Rosh Hashana has another name, 'Yom Teru'ah', alluding to one of the sounds that is made on the shofar, as we ask G-d for forgiveness. And what does 'teru'ah' actually mean? If you look closely inside the word, it contains the letters 'r'h' which mean 'friend, companion and shepherd'. So, blowing the shofar at Rosh Hashana, like translation, brings true friendship in its wake.

Happy New Year to all.

Dr Irene Lancaster is a Jewish academic, author and translator who has established university courses on Jewish history, Jewish studies and the Hebrew Bible. She trained as a teacher in modern Languages and Religious Education.

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