The oldest and most primitive human dates back about seven million years, according to a skull found by scientists in Central Africa. “That’s so depressing,” I say to my husband, Larry. “I can’t believe that in seven million years we haven’t evolved any further than this.”
“This” being a world in which half the people live on less than $2 a day; in which 1 billion people go to bed hungry every night; in which 115 million children never go to school at all; and in which 27 million people live in some kind of slavery.
“You’re looking at this all wrong,” Larry assures me. “Seven million years is an insignificant blip in the history of the cosmos.”
And, Jewish tradition tells me, the first 6,994,235 years hardly count.
After all, it’s not the birth of the prehominid that scientists have named “Toumai” that marks the beginning of our moral evolution, but rather the birth of Adam and Eve.
We Jews recognize this mil! estone as Rosh Hashanah, the birthday of the world, which occurred 5765 years ago and which this year begins at sundown on Sept. 15.
Also known as the Day of Judgment, Rosh Hashanah gives us an opportunity — well, actually, it obligates us — to commit to improving ourselves and our world.
This concept of effecting personal and collective transformation is nothing short of revolutionary. As Thomas Cahill points out in his book, “The Gifts of the Jews,” we were the first ancient people to realize that we could actually make a difference. According to Cahill, ancient Jews recognized that “We are not doomed, not bound to some predetermined fate; we are free.”
Not free in the sense that my four sons envision — free from parental criticism, curfews and curbs on Internet use — but free in the sense of having the opportunity to partner with God to help eliminate poverty, hunger, illiteracy, slavery and other ills.
But we haven’t always used this freedom wisely. ! Fewer than 2,000 years after Adam and Eve’s eviction from the Garden o f Eden, mankind’s egregious misbehavior led God to destroy everyone but Noah and his family. When we built and worshiped the Golden Calf while Moses was fetching the badly needed Ten Commandments, we came close to annihilation for a second time; only Moses’ intervention saved us. And there have been other close calls as well.
Yes, our moral progress is slow. We are stiff-necked. We whine and we moan. We look for the easy way out.
And yet, once a year at Rosh Hashanah, we must fearlessly and aggressively assess our mistakes, misdeeds and misbehavior. We must make apologies and amends both to other people and to God, and vow to make positive changes.
“I’m a teenager. You can’t make me change,” Jeremy, my 15-year-old son, says, proving that stubbornness is not just an ancient characteristic.
“No, but you can make yourself change,” I answer. And the consequences, I remind him, as the U’Netaneh Tokef prayer tells us, are nothing short of determining “who shall l! ive and who shall die.”
And so we strive to make “Ch-ch-ch-ch-changes,” as the David Bowie song goes. Changes that are probing, painful and substantive. Changes that are powerful enough to avert a decree of death.
These changes come about in three ways:
First, through teshuvah. Often translated as “repentance,” this Hebrew term actually means “returning,” referring to a return to God. It involves the difficult work of introspection, apology and amends that begins in the weeks leading up to Rosh Hashanah and ends with the blowing of the shofar signaling the end of Yom Kippur.
Teshuvah, one midrash tells us, was so important that God created it before creating the world, knowing that our free will would invariably lead us astray, and understanding that we would need a way back.
Second, change can occur through tefilah, or prayer. But, as Rabbi Ed Feinstein explains in his book, “Tough Questions Jews Ask”: “Real prayer, prayer that works doesn’t change th! e world; it changes us. We can’t ask God to change the world for us. W e have to do that ourselves.”
Third, we can change through tzedakah. Though commonly translated as “charity,” the Hebrew root of tzedakah means “justice,” which is yet another route toward meaningful change. As God commands in Deuteronomy 16:20, “Justice, justice shall you pursue.”
Larry and I ask our sons what they will be doing in the coming year to help repair the world.
Zack, 20, will continue to write and edit for the Williams College newspaper, spending long hours every week helping to keep the students and staff informed and involved.
Gabe, 17, will be co-organizing a program for Milken Community High School juniors and seniors to live and work for two days at the Union Rescue Mission in downtown Los Angeles.
Jeremy will do at least 120 hours of volunteer work at Valley Presbyterian Hospital in Van Nuys, Calif., assisting in the emergency room and in pediatrics.
And Danny, 13, is kicking off his campaign for President of the United States, wit! h the goal of helping to eliminate poverty.
To paraphrase Rabbi Tarfon in Pirke Avot, the Ethics of the Fathers, it is not our responsibility to finish the work, yet neither are we free to walk away from it.
Which is maybe what happened seven million years ago.
Jane Ulman is a freelance writer in Encino, Calif. She is the mother of four sons.
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.