Understanding Rosh Hashanah

By Rabbi Dan Lewin

Before entering a special and sacred day in the Jewish calendar, it’s crucial to understand its essential ideas and what we aim to derive from it. Each holiday offers identifiable themes and associations that capture its unique essence. Pesach symbolizes freedom, Yom Kippur brings the chance for atonement, Sukkot embodies joy and Hanukkah radiates light, among others. However, when it comes to Rosh Hashanah, things become a bit more nuanced.

Rosh Hashanah is often referred to as “the Jewish New Year.” However, it bears little resemblance to the American New Year’s festivities, where champagne flows in a celebratory atmosphere, confetti falls and melancholic tunes provide a backdrop. So, what is the prevailing mood of Rosh Hashanah?

On the surface, Rosh Hashanah signifies a new year with fresh beginnings, instilling a sense of festivity. After all, who among us doesn’t yearn for a fresh start? The comforting glow of flickering candles at night and festive meals adorned with sweet fruits and colorful delicacies enhance the warm embrace of cherished family time. We dip apples in honey and offer our heartfelt wishes and blessings for a sweet year to those around us.

At the same time, the liturgy takes on a more serious tone. It marks the commencement of the “Days of Awe,” specifically known as “the Day of Judgment.” The solemn melodies and deep contemplative compositions convey this gravity as we recite the famous words declaring how “on Rosh Hashanah we are inscribed…who shall live and who shall die, who shall be rich and who…”

In the Torah, the verses (Leviticus 23:24-25) refer to the holiday only as Yom HaZikaron (the day of remembrance) and Yom Teruah (the day of the sounding of the shofar), leaving us to ponder how this most significant mitzvah of the shofar fits into the picture.

So, after considering all these elements, one might wonder: Is this a joyous occasion, a solemn day or perhaps both? How do these titles and messages of “the Jewish New Year,” “the Day of Judgment,” “the Day of Blowing the Shofar” and “Day of Remembrance” coalesce?

Creation of man

To bridge these seemingly disparate — and, at times, conflicting elements — and uncover a common thread, we must delve into the historical and mystical dimensions of Rosh Hashanah. Every Jewish holiday commemorates a pivotal event in our history, bringing with it a profound innovation that we aim to tap into. The Torah establishes Rosh Hashanah in connection with the creation of the world, albeit not its initial day. Instead, it marks the moment when humanity emerges on the stage of existence.

The defining attribute of humanity lies in our capacity to recognize the Creator and navigate the world through choices guided by free will. This gift of free will allows us to transcend all other creatures and fulfill a greater purpose in repairing a fragmented world — making it a dwelling place for the divine. However, this privilege also comes with trials and the unique potential for destructive missteps.

On Rosh Hashanah, the day when this dynamic was introduced, we embrace the gift of free will by reflecting on our choices and resolving to make more conscious decisions moving forward. At the core of this spiritual work lies the strengthening of the concept of acceptance. Acceptance, in general, entails recognizing a certain reality and coming to terms with it, rather than resisting or imposing our personal desires.

In this context, we acknowledge God, the source of all existence; embrace our relationship with the Almighty; and accept our responsibility to better the world, starting with our internal “miniature world.” It is an auspicious time to restore what we have tarnished or recommit to what we’ve been too preoccupied to properly invest in. The profound sense of commitment, which we strive to internalize, imbues our actions with meaning throughout the year. This, more than any other emotion, is the dominant theme of the day.

Time, space and souls renewed

Mystical sources offer unique insights into this holiday. One of the central teachings is that a “new year” isn’t merely a temporal marker. Each year, on this day, signifies a renewal of all creation: The divine energy that sustained the previous year withdraws and ascends, making way for a fresh surge of life into our world.

But this influx of new sustaining energy also brings judgment — a reassessment of what will unfold in the details of our lives. The Talmud (Beitzah 16a) explains that one’s general health and livelihood are determined on this day for the coming year. Throughout the rest of the year, it’s mainly a matter of activating and collecting what has already been prepared for us (although there are moments of grace and flexibility regarding predetermined blessings or pending judgment — our actions can alter a decree for better or worse).

This is one of the reasons why the Hebrew term “Rosh Hashanah” literally translates to “head of the year” (not “new year”). This day serves as the central point of vitality that guides the rest of the upcoming year. Every moment of this 48-hour holiday holds significance in shaping these blessings.

Connecting the names

Thus, each of the titles describing Rosh Hashanah conveys a vital aspect of the day. These varied qualities must be viewed as complementary. Focusing solely on judgment, for example, would overlook the opportunity for renewal and the sweetness of the day. Embracing the celebration of a new beginning alone would neglect the serious tone that compels introspection. Moreover, the primary mitzvah is the act of listening to the series of shofar blasts.

The different titles also correspond to the journey each of us must undertake on this day. The beginning of the “head of the year” signifies new life but naturally entails “a day of judgment” (which only exists in the context of choice). This realization prompts us to ponder our lives, reaffirm our commitments and restore our essential relationship with God. Yet, even when we are in the proper mindset, feel the importance of the day, recognize the need for self-improvement in all aspects of life, our words remain limited and insufficient to convey our emotions fully. Ultimately, the best we can do is release an inner cry from the depths of our soul, a breath of life that seeks to break through all barriers, transcending our human capacity and reaching far into the infinite. The simple sound of the shofar, representing our pure intentions and most profound plea, then awakens the Creator’s desire to reinvest in creation and our personal lives.

When we can release this inner cry, yearning to be free of our weaknesses and transcend our limitations, we have truly immersed ourselves in the atmosphere of Rosh Hashanah. At that moment, a sense of security blends with the awe and solemnity, knowing that we have achieved our goal. We don’t need to witness the results to be confident that our prayers will be accepted, that the judgment for the upcoming year will be more favorable than what we deserve and that this New Year will be a sweet one, accompanied by an abundance of additional blessings.

Rabbi Dan Lewin is director of the nonprofit Maayan Chai Foundation. For information, visit www.maayanchai.org.

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