The Pilgrims and Rosh HaShana

Rosh HaShana, the start of the Jewish year 5770, begins on Friday night. There could hardly be a more appropriate week to discuss the Pilgrims.

Those who sailed on the Mayflower were deeply religious and Biblically knowledgeable Christians. So it is astounding that in setting up the Plymouth Plantation, they agreed to an arrangement with their merchant sponsors that contradicted a vital Bible principle.

According to the terms of their agreement, the land and whatever the settlers built or produced belonged to the group in common, not to individuals. That idea was a miserable failure. Hard working members resented working to benefit the lazy. Why put in greater effort for no greater gain? Once they switched to private ownership and enterprise was rewarded, the colony began to flourish.

In the words of William Bradford, second governor of the colony, they initially acted as if, “they were wiser than God.” Bad move.

Throughout the Torah, God’s word consistently emphasizes that private property is to be respected. Whether it is Abraham’s insistence on buying the land for Sarah’s burial, or the overwhelming number of Biblical verses that deal with economic transactions, God’s message to humanity elevates ownership. Charity itself is only possible if people own something; you can only give from what belongs to you.

Not only do we need to respect private property, ancient Jewish wisdom even disdains ownerless objects; for instance lost objects.

Look at the following words: …and so you shall do for all objects which have been lost…you cannot hide.

(Deut. 22:3)

There you are power walking down the street on your way to an appointment, when out of the corner of your eye you spot a bracelet lying on the ground.  Remarkably, God does not allow you the option of ignoring the lost bracelet and simply passing it by. Just by seeing that item which has both value and unique properties, you have become its caretaker.  You are now obligated to search for its owner. Returning lost objects to their owners is a commandment, not a suggestion.

What does this have to do with Rosh HaShana, a time of judgment, repentance, and fresh starts?

At this time of year we emphasize that we have been lost; separated from our Owner. However, unlike objects, which don’t have the power to actualize their own return, human beings can indeed do so.

The Rosh HaShana worship service speaks of yearning for a time when all creation recognizes that God is our Creator. Once we acknowledge that He alone owns the world, recognizing His role in judging us and repenting for disobeying His rules follows naturally.

As our Creator, God allows us the use of our bodies and of His wonderful world. The obligation is on us to leave both better off than when we received them. After all, you may certainly borrow a car, but you can’t drive it recklessly. Even better is to wash it and fill up the gas tank before returning it.

Furthermore, we weren’t lost because of our Owner’s inattention. We ourselves wandered away and are responsible for heading back home. Fortunately, we have been given a guidebook, the Bible, to highlight the path. Since we each have value and unique properties, we cannot hide.

The five books of Moses are divided into 54 sections. Jews read one section (sometimes 2) each week. The Shabbat before Rosh HaShana, we read the section known as Nitzavim, which includes chapter 30 of Deuteronomy. In the first ten verses, the root word “SHaV”, or “return” appears seven times. As I explain in my audio CD, Day for Atonement: Heavenly Gift of Spiritual Serenity, this time of year is especially suitable for all of mankind, Jewish or not, to change course and return to our Owner.

Like the Pilgrims we will only benefit from not trying to be wiser than God.

May God grant us all a season of returning home, of peace, health and prosperity.

P.S. To my great embarrassment, in last week’s Thought Tool, I confused two of Clint Eastwood’s movies as hundreds of you faithful readers noticed.  His gun was actually out of ammunition when he spoke to the punk.

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