Our Radical New Year

“Radical” – adjective: relating to the root or origin; favoring basic change (Webster’s Compact Dictionary)


Dear Friends,


Rosh Hashana is the beginning of a ten day period of “teshuvah” – spiritual return - which concludes with Yom Kippur. Teshuvah 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 most of the ten days of teshuvah, we also acknowledge and confess the sins that we have committed against the Creator, each other, and ourselves, and we accept upon ourselves the responsibility to correct our ways. On Rosh Hashana, however, there is no confession of sins. 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 our sins. The message of Rosh Hashana which brings us to that awareness is a radical message. It calls on us to replace the existing world order through a return to the original world order. The existing world order is based on the belief that the human being is the sovereign of the earth. On Rosh Hashana, however, we proclaim that “Hashem” - the Compassionate One - is the Sovereign of the earth. In this way, 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 only the caretaker 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)


The highlight of the Rosh Hashana prayers is when we proclaim the Compassionate One as “Ha-Melech” - the Sovereign. In many congregations, the Cantor – the one leading the congregation in prayer - begins to softly chant the awesome traditional melody that introduces the word Ha-Melech. Gradually, he increases his volume and chants the word Ha-Melech in a loud voice. He also stresses this word whenever it appears in the prayers.


A midrash is a rabbinic story or parable which reveals a deeper meaning of a biblical text. 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. As we discussed in previous letters, Jewish tradition teaches that Adam was originally an androgynous creature with a male and female side; however, the Creator later separated the sides to form two separate beings. The following story is referring to the original Adam:


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. 

There is a mystical Jewish teaching which can give us another understanding of the above midrash. 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 sage of the 18th century, states that this idea is expressed in the following biblical verse, where the Creator proclaims, “Let us make the human being in Our image and after Our likeness” (Genesis 1:26). Who was the Creator speaking to when He said, “Let us make the human being”? According to the Vilna Gaon, 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 parable which refers to the dialogue with the different characteristics 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 Compassionate 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 Compassionate One Who is Sovereign over all, including ourselves.



Yosef Ben Shlomo Hakohen  (See below)


A Related Teaching:


The radical message of Rosh Hashana leads to the holistic awareness that both body and soul can become “holy” – consecrated to Divine service. As Rabbi Hirsch reminds us, the entire human being – soul and body – was created “in the Divine image” (Genesis 1:27). In his commentary on the words, “in the Divine image,” Rabbi Hirsch writes:


“This phrase is repeated here several times, emphasizing that the human being’s physical frame is worthy of God and of the human being’s godly purpose. The Torah thus teaches us to recognize the Divine dignity of the human body. Indeed, the Torah’s purpose is not only to hallow the spirit, but also to hallow the body. This is the basis of all human morality. The human body, with all it drives and energies, was created in a form worthy of God, and the human being’s duty is to sanctify his body, in keeping with its godly purpose.”


Both our bodies and souls can therefore become close to our Creator. In this spirit, King David prayed, “My soul thirsts for You; my flesh longs for You” (Psalm 63:2).


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