Towards the beginning of the poem of Ha’azinu, we find a special command enjoining us to “remember”: “Remember the days of the world, understand the years of bygone generations; ask your father, and he will inform you, your elders – and they will tell you” (Devarim 32:7).
Let us try to understand this commandment. What exactly does it mean? How do we remember “the days of the world,” and why is this important?
There is another instance where we find a command to remember a day: “Remember the day of Shabbat, to sanctify it” (Shemot 20:7). The Ramban, in his commentary to that pasuk, explains the meaning of this imperative based on the Mechilta which explains that the gentiles count the days of the week without any specific sequence, with each day standing independently. The first day is named after the sun, the second after the moon, and so on. The days do not lead to any future goal, but rather simply pass by, one after the other. The names of the days serve only as references to the day itself.
We are instructed to count in reference to Shabbat. The Hebrew names of the days are not names, but rather numbers. “Yom Rishon” (“the first day” – Sunday) is the first day of the week; “rishon” is not a name, but rather the day’s number with respect to Shabbat. The days are called “rishon be’Shabbat,” “sheni be’Shabbat,” and so on. This system of counting days teaches that there is a direction and goal towards which we are constantly progressing.
We might explain in a similar vein the command, “Remember the days of the world” – meaning, we should not count the way others count. The system for counting years used by the other nations of the world begins in the middle of human history, and in this respect, it has no intrinsic significance. This method of counting says nothing about the world or about mankind. It is simply a system agreed upon by members of that nation or that faith. The counting does not begin at a point of universal significance, and it therefore does not lead towards a meaningful goal. Each day comes and goes independently. Every month and every year comes and goes on its own. We, Am Yisrael, may be described as “ba’im bayamim” – we come and go with all our days with us. The Jewish counting of years, which begins at the time of creation, binds together all human history (and not just Christian, Moslem or Chinese history) into a single unit infused with meaning and purpose. The counting is not merely technical, a means for allowing proper day-to-day functioning, or a yardstick for remembering days and events. It is rather something meaningful, a system that teaches us about the starting point of all of humanity and the entire world, and the destiny towards which we are all headed.
Shabbat Parashat Ha’azinu occurs at the point of transition from one year to the next, and understanding the meaning behind the Jewish system of counting years is a matter of great importance. Rosh Hashanah is of utmost significance to us, in that it commemorates the day on which the world was created. It is, essentially, the day on which we embarked on the journey along which we continue to travel, heading towards the world’s realization of its ultimate purpose and state of perfection.