The Revolutionary Message of Rosh Hashana

Introductory Comments:

I once read an essay by Rabbi Simon Schwab, a noted Torah educator of the previous generation, where he made the following observation: From the perspective of our tradition, it is inaccurate to refer to Rosh Hashana as the "Jewish New Year," for our tradition teaches that Rosh Hashana is the "New Year" for all humankind. It is a sacred day of universal significance, as the Midrash teaches that Adam and Eve were created on Rosh Hashana (Leviticus Rabbah 29a). It was on this day that they violated the Divine mandate, and it was on this day that they were judged for the sin which caused them to leave the Garden of Eden.

And it is on this sacred day that all the descendants of Adam and Eve are judged, as the Talmud states: "On Rosh Hashana, all human beings pass before Him like young sheep" (Mishnah Rosh Hashana 1:2). The term "Rosh Hashana" means "the beginning of the year," and on Rosh Hashana all humankind passes before the Creator to be judged individually, like young sheep who pass through a narrow opening in the corral in order to be counted. The revolutionary message of Rosh Hashana that we shall begin to discuss in this letter is therefore relevant to all humankind:

Dear Friends,

The period which begins with Rosh Hashana and concludes with Yom Kippur is known as "the Ten Days of Teshuva." The root meaning of the Hebrew word "teshuva" is "return." Teshuva - often translated as "repentance - is a process of self-evaluation and change which leads to a return to our Source. We seek to return to our Creator and to rededicate ourselves to the purpose of our creation. In this way, we are also returning to our true selves - the Divine image that is within each of us. During this process of teshuva, we also acknowledge and confess that we have commited "sins" - acts which were not in harmony with the purpose of our creation. We therefore resolve to correct our ways.

On Rosh Hashana, however, there is no confession of sins. The confession of our sins takes place on Yom Kippur - the Day of Atonement. The purpose of Rosh Hashana is not to focus on our sins, but to bring us to a new spiritual awareness which can eliminate the root cause of all sins. The message of Rosh Hashana which brings us to that awareness is a revolutionary message. It calls on us to replace the existing world order with a new/old world order. The existing world order is based on the belief that the human being is the sovereign and owner of the earth. On Rosh Hashana, however, we proclaim that the Compassionate One is the Sovereign and Owner of the earth.

On Rosh Hashana, we seek to return to the original world order that existed in the Garden of Eden. In the Garden, the human being originally understood that he was the "caretaker," and not the "sovereign" of the Garden, as it is written:

"The Compassionate and Just One took the human being and placed him in the Garden of Eden to serve it and to guard it." (Genesis 2:15)

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, a noted 19th century sage and biblical commentator, finds in this verse the following Divine message to the human being: "The earth was not created as a gift to you - you have been given to the earth, to treat it with respectful consideration as God's earth, and everything on it as God's creation, as your fellow creature, to be respected, loved and helped to attain its purpose according to God's will." (The Nineteen Letters, Letter 4)

A highlight of the Rosh Hashana prayers is when we proclaim the Compassionate One as "Ha-Melech" - the Sovereign. There is an ancient midrashic work, Pirkei D'Rabbi Eliezer, which describes how the first human being acknowledged the Divine sovereignty. It is found in chapter 11 which describes the creation of "Adam" - the first man/woman - in the Garden of Eden. (Jewish tradition teaches that "Adam" was originally an androgynous creature with a male and female side, and that the Creator later separated the sides to form two separate beings.) The following story from Pirkei D'Rabbi Eliezer is therefore relevant to the theme of Rosh Hashana:

Adam stood and he began to gaze upwards and downwards. He saw all the creatures which the Holy One, blessed be He, had created; thus, he began to glorify his Creator, saying, "O Compassionate One, how manifold are Your works!" He stood on his feet and was adorned with the Divine image. All the creatures saw him and became afraid of him, thinking that he was their Creator; thus, they all came to prostrate themselves before him.

Adam said to them: "Are you coming to prostrate yourselves before me? Come, I and you; let us go and adorn in majesty and might and acclaim as Sovereign over us the One Who created us." Adam went first to acclaim the Creator as the Sovereign, and all the creatures followed him. (Chapter 11)

In the spirit of the above midrash, we chant the following words on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur.

"Let all Your works revere You and all creatures bow before You. Let them all become a united society to do Your will wholeheartedly."

Have a Shabbat Shalom, and a Good and Sweet Year.
Yosef Ben Shlomo Hakohen (See below)

P.S. A midrash is a story or parable which reveals a deeper meaning of a Torah verse or teaching. I would therefore like to review a mystical Jewish teaching which can give us another understanding of the above midrash which describes the dialogue between Adam and the other creatures. According to our mystical tradition, the human being is a microcosm of all creation, and within the human being one can find the characteristics of every creature. The Vilna Gaon, a leading 18th century sage, states that this idea is expressed in the following verse: "And God said, 'Let us make the human being in Our image and after Our likeness' (Genesis 1:26)." Who was God speaking to when He said, "Let us make the human being"? The Vilna Gaon answers that the Creator was addressing all of creation, bidding each creature to contribute a portion of its characteristics to the human being. For example, the human being's strength is traced to the lion; his swiftness to the eagle; his cunning to the fox; and his capacity for growth to the flora.

With this new insight, we can interpret the above midrash in the following manner: Adam's dialogue with the creatures can be understood as a dialogue with the different characteristics of the creatures which were within himself. He understood that they could all be used for his selfish gratification, for was not he the sovereign over his own world? He then remembered that he was not the true sovereign. He therefore realized that he had to dedicate all the different aspects of his being to the service of the One Who is the Sovereign over all, including himself.

On Rosh Hashana, we too are to acknowledge that we must dedicate all the different aspects of our being to the service of the One Who is Sovereign over all, including ourselves.

Hazon - Our Universal Vision