The Singular Message of Rosh Hashanah
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8/4/2019 The Singular Message of Rosh Hashanah
The "Singular" Message of
Rosh HashanahRosh Hashanah First Day 5772
By Rabbi Mark B Greenspan
Do you like riddles? I do. And if you're like me then you'll be pleased to know that we're in the midstof one of the more intriguing riddles in our tradition. How exactly did Rosh Hashanah become Rosh
Professor Neil Gillman, my teacher, claims that Rosh Hashanah is something of an enigma. Of all the
holidays in our calendar, it might very well be the strangest. While many consider this to be "religious
prime time," one of the most important moments in the year, you won't find 'Rosh Hashanah,'
anywhere in the Bible. The holiday called Rosh Hashanah simply doesnt exist!
So where does Rosh Hashanah come from? The Torah says, "In the seventh month on the first day ofthe month you shall observe a rest, a sacred occasion with loud blasts. You shall not work at your
occupation; and you shall bring a gift to the Lord."(Deut. 23:24) The holiday that we think of as Rosh
Hashanah is never called by that name. What's more, according to the Torah, it occurs in the seventhmonth of the year - which precludes it from being Rosh Hashanah, "the beginning" of the year!
According to the Torah, Nisan, the month in which Passover falls, is the first month, so technically
Passover is the original "Rosh Hashanah."
Later, in the Mishnah, we find reference not to Rosh Hashanah but four roshei shanah, four occasions
that are considered 'the beginnings of the year.' This term is not a designation for a particular holiday.
Rather, it is a way of referring to moments of transition in the calendar. The year has many roshei
shanah, beginnings. Nisan, we're told, is theRosh Hashanah for holidays and kings (that is, a Jewish
king's reign was marked from Nisan, no matter when he took office); Elul is Rosh Hashanah for cattle
(not so relevant today since I dont believe we have cattle herders in our congregation); Shevat isRosh
Hashanah for trees (we call it Tu Bi-shvat) and Tishri is when we begin counting the years,announcing the jubilee and for planting vegetables. Only later are we told that on the first of Tishri,
"All who walk the earth pass before God k'vnei maron, like young sheep," or, depending on how you
read the Mishnah, "K'vnuniron, as soldiers."
The commentators were not of one mind about what this means. Which are we: sheep passing beneath
the staff, or as soldiers standing in review? This is two ways to think about what our role is in
synagogue at this time of year. And two ways to think of God, as a shepherd, or a King. Whichmetaphor best describes the way you imagine your relationship to God? Possibly neither works for you
- so at this moment what would you say about your relation to God? Why are you here? Is Godlistening? Are we being judged?
It was only later thatRosh Hashanah became associated with creation. In our liturgy we chantHayom
harat olam, "This is the birthday of the world." But the sages didn't agree about this either. Some
argued that the world was created in the month of Nisan and others suggested Tishri. In typical Jewish
fashion, there's also a third point of view: some argued that creation began a week ago on the 25th
8/4/2019 The Singular Message of Rosh Hashanah
Elul, so that Rosh Hashanah marks not the creation of the world but the creation of humanity. That onecan suggest that we know the day on which the world or human beings were created is something of a
deceit. From our modern perspective, this must be read as poetry and not science. The point is that
once a year, we go back to the beginning and start over. It is a powerful way of thinking about
ourselves and the world. The rabbis knew full-well that we have many beginnings. And by suggestingthat 'this is the day' on which we were created, they were reminding us that there are moments when
we should stop and think about where we have been and where we're going. It means that we must say,as it does on ourNer Tamid, "Know before whom you are standing."
But let's return to the Mishnah, for a moment. If we return to the very beginning, we do so not as acommunity but as single individuals - like the first human being. The Mishnah says, on this day, "each
person must pass before God." We stand in judgment alone.
This idea found its way into our liturgy. In the U'netaneh Tokefwe say: "The great Shofar is sounded
and a still small voice is heard. This day even the angels are alarmed and seized with trembling as they
declare, 'The day of judgment is here!' This day all who walk the earth pass before You as sheep/as
soldiers. Like a shepherd who gathers his flocks, bringing them under his staff, you bring everything
that lives before you for review"
These are powerful words. They may trouble us. However you choose to understand these metaphors,
it seems to me that they have one thing in common: Rosh Hashanah is meant to be a solitary, lonely,
day when each of us must stand in the presence of God. We may be surrounded by family and friends
but we are alone before God. Maybe that's why we refer to this season as the "Days of Awe." We mustface our lives, our destiny, our secrets and our shame, all alone.
Our other holidays are days of communal identity: we celebrate the Exodus from Egypt, the giving of
the Torah at Sinai, the sojourn in the wilderness. We light the Menorah to recall the Maccabees and
read the Megillah to commemorate the Jewish people's salvation from Haman. Even Yom Kippur is
about community - we dont confess our individual transgressions but "our sins," as a community.Today we're all alone. "Each person passes before God." As solitary individual we must confront our
mortality: "who shall live and who shall die." There were no guarantees or promises for the past year
and none for the year ahead: today might be the beginning or it might mark the end for each of us.
The words which speak most powerfully to me at this time of year come from the U'netaneh Tokef:"You open the Book of Remembrance and it speaks for itself, for each person has signed it with his
own deeds." Those words are terrifying. It's not God's judgment that we fear but our own. On this daythere are no evasions. We cannot deny the truths of our lives. We cannot hide from ourselves. If we
take the time to reflect on the past year then we must acknowledge our faults and foolishness. We haveno one to blame but ourselves. It's all written down and it's written "in our own handwriting."
But that's not what we do, is it? It's easier to point at others, to make excuses, or to blamecircumstances than it is to take responsibility for ourselves. I'm reminded of a cartoon of a man
standing before a judge. He says: "Of course it was entrapment, your honor. If the voters hadnt electedme I wouldnt be in this mess!" How often have we heard communal leaders blame others for their
own stupidity and greed? It's easier to hide behind others than it is to stand alone, exposed in thepresence of God or in the presence of those we have offended. Whatever the U'netaneh Tokefmay
mean, it reminds us that in the end, in the moments that count the most, we are alone.
8/4/2019 The Singular Message of Rosh Hashanah
We tend to downplay this idea in contemporary Jewish life. We speak of the "Jewish people," theimportance of community, and we like to describe synagogues as a 'family.' Of course, these are all
important aspects of Jewish life. Where would we be without a minyan? Aren't our prayers written in
the first person plural so that we speak as a community? Dont we celebrate our history as a people?
This is true, but our relationship to God begins alone. Today we are like the first human being in theGarden of Eden. We must answer for ourselves. God asks, Ayeka, "Where are you" and we must
answer. We can't hide behind others.
There is a need for a corrective in Jewish life today, a return to the unique and singular relationship
that we have with God. In the moments that count the most, we stand alone. We are responsible forourselves.
That is why the High Holy Days are so powerful, and why they are such a draw for so many of us. It
doesnt quite register consciously, but we're drawn back to synagogue at this time of year because we
sense our 'aloneness.' These days are about the existential truths of life. We live, we die, we make
mistakes. We're afraid. We sense our guilt. We have secrets and shame we share with no one. We're
uncertain. We dont know what the year ahead holds for us or our loved ones. But having arrived at
services, the irony is that we hide behind community rather than confronting our singular presencebefore God. And that is where faith really begins.
The prayer we recite most often during this season emphasizes this 'aloneness' before God. It's not the
U'netaneh TokeforAvinu Malkeinu but Psalm 27. We recite this psalm twice a day for six weeks,
starting in the month of Elul until the end of Sukkot. It begins:
The Lord is my light and my helpWho shall I fear
The Lord is the strength of my life
Of whom shall I be afraid?
Notice that it's not the 'we' who is speaking here but 'me.' I speak of my fears: evil doers slander me,armies camp arise against me, losing the loved ones. But then I say: these aren't my greatest fears - mygreatest fear is not having You in my life, God. If that happens than I am really alone! "One thing do I
ask of God; for this I yearn: to dwell