Every Jewish holiday has its unique theme, activated by a specific ritual. Many think that Rosh Hashanah commemorates the creation of the world. But the day is really about creation of humankind and our purpose on earth, soul in body. The metaphorical theme is “coronation of the King,” and the main mitzvah is sounding the shofar— to stir the emotions and usher a new life-giving energy into the world.
I was recently watching one of my favorite documentaries, Buck, a window into the life, work and philosophy of the real-life “horse whisperer” Buck Brannaman. Unlike previous methods of taming a horse, he does not attempt to overpower or crush the animal in order to get it to cooperate. His approach is wise and gentle, yet the results are more spectacular in terms of obedience and rapport between horse and rider.
It quickly becomes clear that his wisdom and methodology reach beyond horsemanship. The approach to riding relates to teaching, raising children, and even applies to the struggle of soul and body. Indeed, Jewish mystical literature employs the metaphor of a horse and its rider to explain the relationship between soul and body, between deeper conscience and untamed desires. The highest human accomplishment is when the body, initially consumed with in physical pleasures, becomes so in tune with the soul’s mission that it becomes an eager vehicle.
In the film, Buck demonstrates a connection with the horse that many experienced trainers didn’t know was possible. His “soft-feel” allows him to move his horse with even the tiniest gesture. “It’s a dance,” he explains. The viewer has the chance to observe his clinics on natural horsemanship as he travels to a circuit of ranches around the country. One of my favorite lines is when he tells the audience: “Respect is not fear—its acceptance. There’s a difference.”
In other words, the horse cooperates because it accepts the authority of the rider, not because it fears getting whipped. And in the end, it continually seeks to please its master. In a similar vein, a child should listen to a parent, not out of fear of punishment but out of respect and admiration. In a religious context, a person adheres to moral conduct, not from being scared of divine retribution, but because they accept the omnipotence of the Creator. Now one may wonder, isn’t this “acceptance” a type of fear? The difference may be subtle but acceptance involves surrender— even if you don’t feel it, you do it—that embraces a sense of duty. That’s not the same as feeling scared.
From Acceptance to Purpose:
This idea leads us to an oft misunderstood quality stressed throughout classical Jewish literature called kabalot ol malchut shamayim, often translated as “accepting the yolk of Heaven.” The primary period when this quality is activated is during Rosh Hashanah, the head of the year. The rest of the year, our humility comes in waves and spiritual recognition may elude us as we undergo an internal tug of war between personal comfort and commitment. But during the days of awe, when “the king is in the palace,” and the heavenly lights shine strong, the dominant feeling is humble acceptance, recognizing how the source of all life and blessing rests above, beyond our control.
After pondering our fragility in the grand scheme, there is an important message that runs in the opposite direction, pulling us back into the world. As a complement to this “day of judgment,” the Creator loves and cares tremendously for each person. “Your birthday is a day that God decided that the world couldn’t exist without you,” said the Lubavitcher Rebbe. Each individual is given a precious mission and part of the world to rectify—and the gift of free choice to accomplish this.
To be able to look at ones limitations and, on one hand, to say “Yeah, so what?” while also trying to improve, but neither taking away from the other, is an important balancing act. The mind always seeks to understand first in order to act. The emotions crave experience. But there is a deeper power in the soul—a duty— which argues, “even if I don’t feel it, I have a job to do.” We search for that job. The answer is often buried deep within and just needs to be brought to the surface.
A strong awareness of purpose is a vital quality for success in any area. It allows decisions to be made without interference from competing desires, knowing there’s fulfillment beyond material gratification— a connection to something greater than self. As the shofar is sounded and a new life enters the world, we are given the means to strip away all petty preferences of how our life should look and to enter a place of infinite potential.
From purpose stems the formation of identity. These days, Jewish identity in the modern world is often confused with which community organization someone chooses to support or what political posture he adopts. Ambitious pulpit figures rush to post on their blogs and publish sermons in an attempt to carve an identity and project their image to congregants.
But on a deeper level, identity must stem from solid character and an introspective journey. Only after one gets in touch with a more global purpose, can one begin to create a clear structure of how to implement individual purpose according to personal talents and obligations—in parenting, career, and as an overall contributor.
From identity, comes the final step—trust and confidence. Without confidence, purpose and identity remain theoretical; with confidence, they become functional. One can follow through in action without hesitation.
The internal progression, from acceptance to purpose and personal identity, occurs on Rosh Hashanah when all potential is formed for the coming year. The process culminates in the confidence to carry out your unique mission within the details of everyday life for a good sweet healthy New Year.