The Major Themes of Rosh Hashanah
Why do we deserve to be judged favorably?
If we are judged on Rosh Hashanah and wish to merit a favorable outcome, shouldn’t our prayers articulate the all-important desire to improve? Why is there no mention of teshuva, repentance? And doesn’t the festive holiday greeting of Happy New Year seem out of context for a day that should be more solemn?
The purpose of Rosh Hashanah can be understood through the main themes of the central Mussaf prayer offered on that day. The prayer is organized in three sections.
1. Malchiot (Kingship): We begin the special silent prayer of Rosh Hashanah by declaring God our King.
The prohibition of worshiping a foreign god is often understood to prohibit Jews from subscribing to idol worship, paganism, and the deities of other religions. Today, this prohibition may not seem relevant. The Talmud, however, explains that the commandment does not refer solely to idol worship, but also to giving credence to other negative influences.
Rabbi Yerucham Levovitz, one of the great spiritual guides of the past century, further explains this concept. He suggests that harmful desires do not always present themselves to us as such. It is true, there are pleasures in life which we know are plainly wrong. But there are also influences and desires that present themselves as the voice inside us that has our self interest in mind. It may be the voice that calls us to get ahead in business at the expense of other core values. Or it can be the voice that masks our jealousy with the need not to “fall behind.” When faced with a moral or ethical dilemma it may seem like there are two legitimate paths to greatness. The second path, however, is often akin to a “foreign god”; it is the alternative force that pulls us away from God and His commandments.
When we declare God’s Oneness on Rosh Hashanah, we recognize that these alternative paths are a force of challenge. Chasing negative influences that may be promoted by society is not a path that will leave us satisfied. We wish to focus on what is truly important in our lives and our core values. This is the message of Malchiot, KIngship.
2. Zichronot (Remembrances): Once we establish our fundamental goals in the section of Kingship, the prayers transition to the next section called Zichronos. This is often translated as remembrances, but unlike humans who forget and remember, it is inconceivable that such a concept exists in the context of an all powerful God. What then is the theme of this section of the Rosh Hashanah prayer?
Zichronot refers to God’s ability to identify and consider all factors and aspects of a decision. God is aware of our mission in life, our motivations, our thoughts, and our desires. Each and every one of these facets is considered when we are judged.
On a practical level, how does this all encompassing knowledge impact us? Greatness as defined by a mortal is superficial; one cannot possibly consider the innate gifts or challenges that are part of another person’s composition. However, greatness as defined by God is far deeper. It considers every aspect of the person, his capabilities, his achievements and failures, and even his intentions. There is no absolute definition of success – it is dependent on the individual.
As the Kotzker Rebbe, a great hassidic master known for his witty observations, said, one who is on the bottom of a ladder and climbing up is far higher than one on the top of the ladder who is on his way down. We all have our struggles, pre-dispositions and flaws. However, if we are working to climb, then we are working to achieve greatness.
We recognize that the processes of establishing God as our King, and developing a relationship with Him is dependent on who we are and our strengths. This is an energizing concept, as we begin to give credit to our relative challenges, and each obstacle we overcome.
3. Shofarot (The Shofar): Shofarot refers to this symbolic horn, the shofar, blown on Rosh Hashanah. What does the shofar represent? Maimonides tells us that it symbolizes a new beginning. It is for this reason that it was present at Mount Sinai as the Jewish Nation was forged, and it is for this reason that we sound it on Rosh Hashanah when we desire to start anew.
Why do we desire a new beginning?
As described above, we began our prayers by declaring God’s Oneness, and the path in life we would like to lead. We continued by setting context for those life goals, considering our abilities and what God expects of us in particular. Yet after completing this self assessment, we come to question whether we could have accomplished more during the past year. Have we given our best effort to self improvement, to our relationships with our fellow man and with God? The answer to the question likely gives one pause.
We therefore ask God for a new beginning. We blow the shofar.
We desire to earn our existence, but we never forget that we are human and imperfect. We rid ourselves of the misconception that God is a big bad bully in the sky who looks to find fault in our actions, and must be pacified through strange rituals. Rather, He wants to bestow His goodness upon us, and we ask Him to do so for the sake of our relationship. We do so by blowing the Shofar.
This relationship is the meaning and purpose of Rosh Hashanah. We are not asked on this day of new beginnings to examine our individual sins. Instead, we recognize our connection with our Father and King. The bond is greater and more powerful than individual failings or shortcomings. We call upon Him in the spirit of the shofar, and ask that we continue our relationship. We focus on our destination, not the small turns we have taken on our journey there.
It is our willingness to declare God as King that entitles us to a new life. Our request for life is based on our desire for a relationship with Him. Like other relationships it is possible that there are areas that need improvement, however, those imperfections should not detract from the value of the relationship.
It is for this reason that Rosh Hashanah is a celebration of God’s Kingship and our desire to have a relationship with him. May the coming Rosh Hashanah indeed serve as a prelude to a Happy New Year for each of us and our families.
Adapted from the teachings of Rav Yitzchok Berkovits