The “big day” in the Jewish calendar is approaching and people around the world are seeking inspiration, trying to get into spiritual shape for this coming Rosh Hashanah. Every holiday has its unique theme, and a specific mitzvah of the day. Pesach is the time of our freedom, we eat matzah. Yom Kippur is the day we receive atonement, we fast. But when one considers what Rosh Hashanah is all about, things can get a little confusing:
The holiday itself is known by different titles: tune into a radio station and you’ll hear it described as “the Jewish new year.” This name can be somewhat misleading. There is very little similarity between Rosh Hashanah, one of the holiest days of the year, and the American New Year’s experience. We do not drink champagne in a celebratory atmosphere while confetti falls from the sky, with melancholy tunes playing in the background. What then is the pervading mood of Rosh Hashanah?
On the one hand, it appears as though we are celebrating. We gather with the family and friends for a big meal, a typical sign of festivity. We dip apples in honey, and extend warm wishes for a good sweet year. At the same time, the liturgy conveys a more stern approach to the festival. It is the commencement of the “Days of Awe”- known more specifically as “the Day of Judgment.” The solemn tunes and stirring compositions in the siddur convey this more serious tone as we read the famous words declaring how “on Rosh Hashanah we are inscribed…who shall live and who shall die, who shall be rich and who…”
Things get even more puzzling when we look in the Torah itself where the name “Rosh Hashanah” is not even used to discuss this holiday. Neither is the “Day of Judgment.” The Bible (Leviticus 23:24-25) refers to the holiday as Yom Ha-Zikkaron (the day of remembrance) or Yom Teruah (the day of the sounding of the shofar) – leaving us to further wonder how this central description and most significant mitzvah of the shofar fit into the big picture of the day.
And so, after examining the facts, we may well ask: is this a happy day, a serious day, both? How do these titles and messages of “the Jewish New Year”, “a day of judgment” and “the day of blowing the shofar” all fit together? Attempting to connect these distinct- even contradictory- elements to find some underlying theme invites one to probe deeper into the significance of Rosh Hashanah.
The Jewish mystical sources devote much attention to explaining this holiday. One of the main teachings is that all of existence – not just human and animal life- has both a body and soul of some kind. On a global scale, the physical universe is like the body in relation to the life energy that sustains it, which is its soul. A “new year” then is not simply a way of marking time. There is more profound process taking place each year on this day, a renewal of all of creation. Just as death marks the departure of the soul from the body and birth its entrance into the body, so too on this day there is a death and a birth taking place: the divine energy that has fueled the existence of the previous year begins to withdraw and ascend, and a new life-force descends and enters the world on Rosh Hashanah.
But with the entry of this new energy to sustain the world comes new judgment – a reevaluation of what will take place in the details of our lives. Indeed the Talmud (Beitzah 16a) relates that one’s general health and livelihood is measured out on this day for the coming year. The rest of the year it’s just a question of going out and collecting what is already waiting for us. Every second of the forty-eight hour period is meaningful in determining the blessings. That’s one of the reasons why the Hebrew words- Rosh Hashanah mean, literally, “head of the year” – not “new year.” This day is the rosh – the head – the center of vitality that steers the organs of the body, the rest of the upcoming year.
With so much on the line, we begin to review our actions, to remember the mistakes of the past and resolve to improve in the future. This contemplation leads us to a higher sense of awareness, an acknowledgement that life is precious and fragile. We reach out to contact G-d and attempt to renew our most essential relationship. It is an auspicious time to re-build what we have tainted, or simply been too distracted to properly invest in.
But even when we are able to get into the proper mindset, feel the importance of the day, recognize and resolve to be a better person, a better spouse, child, friend, etc. words are limited. At the end of it all, the best we do is to let out an inner scream from the very depth of the soul, a breath of life that seeks to break all barriers, to reach beyond our limited capacity, and to penetrate deep into the infinite to attain the truest connection. This voice from the depth of the heart is perfectly reflected in the piercing sound of the shofar. It is both a blast that comes to wake up the soul from a deep slumber, and an expression of our strongest plea.
And so, these three titles describing the day of Rosh Hashanah relate the journey that we take, each an integral part of the complete process. The occurrence of “new year” naturally brings “a day of judgment” which prompts us to contemplate our lives, acknowledge our limitations, establish our commitment, and restore our personal relationship with G-d. The product of our effort is a stirring emotion that culminates in a “day of blowing” the shofar- the deepest expression of our faith.
When we reach this state of mind, where we genuinely seek improvement and are able to let out this inner cry, we have finally entered into the atmosphere of Rosh Hashanah. And at that point, a feeling of security is mixed in to the awe and somberness, knowing that we have reached our goal. We do not need to see the results to be certain that our prayers will be accepted, that the judgment for the upcoming year will be good, that this New Year will be a sweet one, bringing with it an abundance of new blessings.