Three Ideas for Rosh Hashanah
Bringing down to earth the machzor's central ideas.
Everyone speaks about preparing for Rosh Hashanah. “Are you prepared?” (Are we ever? Is it something with a finite beginning and end?) “Are you preparing?” (Is it an ongoing process? Shouldn’t we be preparing our whole lives?) Are you done with your preparations?” (Did you make your menus and cook your meals?)
But it occurred to me recently (probably at about 3:00 a.m. which seems to be my “spare” time these days!) that in order to properly prepare, we need to know exactly what we are preparing for. What is Rosh Hashanah? What am I supposed to learn and understand and internalize on that day? And how do I get myself ready to do so?
Of course there are the physical preparations – the grocery shopping, the menu planning, the cooking. There’s that new dress that husbands are supposed to buy wives (and that daughters seem to think applies to them as well). There’s the setting of the table and the inviting of guests. These are not trivial. These are not minor. These are an essential part of the holiday. And they are certainly effortful.
But the real work is spiritual. The real work requires introspection and reflection. The real work demands exploration and understanding.
There are three ideas that are central to Rosh Hashanah – kingship, shofar and remembrance. It is the acceptance and internalization of these concepts that will be determinative of our Yom Tov experience. That is what I need to work on. I always tell my students that awareness is half the battle. Just knowing where I need to focus my energies helps shape and give structure to the day – and to my errant, chaotic thoughts.
But it’s not enough. I am going to pick one idea in each area to work on.
Kingship (malchut) means accepting the Almighty’s absolute authority. Whatever He says, goes. Whether it makes sense to me or not. In fact, if it makes sense to me there is a danger that I am acting in response to my own intellect and reason and not to the Almighty’s command.
Once I’ve used my mind to determine there is a God and that He gave us His Torah, then I need to subjugate my will to His. I can deepen my understanding of the mitzvot (commandments) in order to strengthen my observance of them and my connection to God – but not as a way of evaluating their importance or relevance. My intellect and my goals can’t share the monarchy with the Almighty. I am working on recognizing and accepting the fact that my intellect is only a tool in the service of my Creator.
What happens when we hear that shofar blow? It’s a very profound, almost primal experience. It reaches deep within us to access an innate place of hope and yearning. The shofar symbolizes redemption. It won’t always be like this. There is a better world coming. There is not need to despair. Whatever happens at the UN…
The Almighty will redeems us. The messiah will come. There will be a world of clarity and not confusion. This allows us to get up and face each day. The shofar reminds us never to give up, that no matter how bleak it seems, dawn is just around the corner.
And finally, remembrance. What does it mean that the Almighty remembers us? Was there a risk He would forget? It means we have a personal relationship with Him; He cares about each of us individually. Kingship can be (should be) a little intimidating. Kingship can be a little distant, a little awe-inspiring! Remembrance is up close and personal. The Almighty cares about me. He’s involved in my life. He’s interested in my good. He loves me more (much more) than I love my children. He wants my good more (much more) that I want their good. And unlike my all-too-human parenting, He’s never too busy for me, He never loses His temper with me and He never makes mistakes.
Everything that happens is custom-tailored just for me. Wow! Remembrance (zichronot) is to never forget that the Almighty loves me – imperfect, struggling (one foot forward, two steps back) me.
I’m going to try to take it all in – the fear, the hope, the love. What more could we ask for in the new year?