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How Do We Define Others?

How Do We Define Others?

Rosh Hashanah

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It is always a question of interpretation. The artist’s stroke and dancer’s step, a child’s scanning of a mother’s face: are all acts of construal. Everyone witnesses the sun rise and set. Yet, one calls it beautiful; another says it is blinding. We are barraged with facts and forced to appraise. People compulsively opine.

G‑d brought the world into existence on the 25th day of the Hebrew month of Elul, but introduced man to creation six days later, on the 1st of Tishrei—and that is when we celebrate the New Year. In the Rosh Hashanah liturgy, we say, “This is the day, the beginning of Your work.” Are we so self-absorbed as to be indifferent to the preceding days of creation? Life pulsates all around us. We are but one amongst millions of forms of life, yet we celebrate our appearance—the creation of mankind—as the “beginning of Your work.”

The letters of the alef-bet have corresponding numeric values. The number 25 spells the word “koh,” meaning “like this.”1 Twenty-five is thus a statement of approximation, signaling something vague. When the prophets beheld G‑d’s message through a dream-like obfuscation, they began their prophecies with the word koh—“like this.2” They could not lay claim to a visceral encounter with G‑d; He came through the veil of metaphor.3

Conversely, the word “this” is a confident statement. When G‑d split the sea, the Jewish people said, “This is my G‑d.4” His presence was so dominant, the purpose of the event so evident, that they could point and say, “This is G‑d.5” At the moment of materialization, when the distance between object and observer closes—when everything falls into place—we say, “this.”

The universe is a compendium of inexorable realities: tectonic plates shift, glaciers erode, waters surge, volcanoes erupt. But these inevitabilities are undefined. They have no inherent hue; they do not possess intention. Independent of human scrutiny, is a sunset beautiful, an earthquake a tragedy? The natural world is a being of koh. Its reality is undeniable, but its interpretation is obscure.

Significance becomes possible only with the arrival of humanity. We ascribe meaning to make sense of—to clarify—a preexisting reality. Adam’s first activity on earth was to give names to the animals.6 That is what people do. They define things, make distinctions, and assign value. So creation leaves the realm of ambiguity and comes into sharp relief when people begin to interpret. If G‑d desires to be discovered in creation, then the “beginning of His work” is when humanity starts to search. When we first said “this,” creation truly began.

But every year, we celebrate Rosh Hashanah again. Because creation—and its interpretation—is a never ending process. There is always the ability to reimagine our response. When we will say, “This is the day, the beginning of Your work,” we mean to say that today we can redefine ourselves and the world around us.

For millennia, humanity has largely chosen to define people with disabilities as somehow inferior, and excluded them from participating fully in society. With the passage of time, we have redeemed ourselves of these conceptions but remain entrenched in seemingly benign—but insidious—assumptions. Too often, we become fixated on external trappings and fail to recognize the essentials that bind us. Inclusion, as a movement, is a call for us to remember that much of this world and the circumstances it presents are neutral: it is we who can decide the value of a given fact. No two people share the same limitations, but we do share our common humanity. To impose a secondary fact over one’s primary essence is a choice. People do not define themselves by their limitations. It is time to extend that right to every individual.

On Rosh Hashanah we are again given the power to decide how we see things. It is an opportunity for us to adjust our previous perceptions, and to reflect on how our institutions can include those who may have external constraints. Our world is one of constant reinvention. As we inaugurate a New Year, let us be brave enough to use our meaning-giving impulse to challenge existing definitions, and create newer, more inclusive ones.

Footnotes
1.
כ=20, ה=5, 20+5+25.
2.
Sifrei and Rashi to Numbers, 30:2.
3.
See Likutei Torah, Matot, 82a, ff.
5.
Shemot Rabah 23:15.
This article was produced in partnership by the Ruderman Chabad Inclusion Initiative (RCII) and the Rohr Jewish Learning Institute (JLI).
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