If you take a look at the curriculum for a degree in education, you will see lots of courses about teaching methods, classroom management and imparting values. But there is one ritual, that repeats itself hundreds of thousands of times, that is usually overlooked.
A seasoned teacher was once asked what she thought was the most vital element in a class. Her response was unexpectedly simple: attendance.
The reply was surprising. How could taking attendance overshadow the profound knowledge imparted, the intricate skills honed, and the deep-seated values instilled throughout the class? And how does this anecdote connect to Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year? The parallel might not be apparent at first glance, but delving into the significance of this sacred celebration can offer us a profound understanding.
Rosh Hashanah has multiple roles. It marks the start of a new year, but it is also the birthday of creation and a day of reckoning. These roles bring with them mixed emotions. On the one hand, it’s a happy occasion welcoming a new year and a fresh start. On the other hand, it’s a solemn day where God assesses and judges every person.
How can we make sense of all of these different feelings packed into one day?
To answer this question let’s go back to the verses in Genesis 1. A recurring theme in the creation story is God seeing that things He created are good. The first time it occurs is after the creation of light at the very beginning of creation:
“Hashem saw that the light was good…” (Genesis 1:4)
This repeats for all the various parts of creation until the climax at the end of the sixth day:
And Hashem saw all that He had made, and found it very good.’ (Genesis 1:31)
These verses are puzzling. As a human, I have to inspect everything that I make to ensure that it comes out right. If I were making soup, for example, I’d chop vegetables, add seasoning, cook them together and then taste the broth. Then I would adjust the seasoning and cook it some more until I was satisfied with the final product. Only once I have gone through all of those steps and determined that it is to my liking would I declare that the soup is good.
But when God made the world, it was a precise, divine, and perfect creation. So what does it mean that after each thing He created “He saw that it was good”?
The answer to this question is that seeing isn’t just about gathering information, it is also a way of communicating. That’s why eye contact during a conversation is so important; it makes both people feel acknowledged and valued.
Now, let’s apply this to the classroom. When the teacher takes attendance it is not just about noting who’s present and who’s absent. It’s a silent but powerful message to each student: “I see you, you matter to me, you have value.”
Returning to the creation story, when God looked at each part of creation He wasn’t inspecting it for quality control. Instead, by gazing upon His creations He was making them good! Anything, or anyone, that God looks at gains divine importance and value. That is why God looked at each creation after its completion and declared them all to be good.
This idea also finds expression in the judgment of Rosh Hashanah. Being judged by God might seem frightening, but it’s also uplifting. The fact that God is watching us and judging us means that He cares about us and values us. While we might feel the weight of judgment, we also bask in the comfort of God’s unwavering attention and care, and the fact that we are being “seen” by Him. This is why the day can encompass both fear and joy, celebration along with trepidation.