Rosh Hashana begins Sunday evening, September 29th!
What is the Essence of Rosh Hashana and How Do We Observe It?
Rosh Hashana is the Jewish New Year, but unlike the secular New Year which is celebrated in many parts of the "civilized" world by partying, drinking to excess and watching a little ball descend a tower in Times Square, the Jewish New Year is celebrated by reflecting upon the past, correcting one's mistakes, planning for the future, praying for a healthy and sweet year and celebrating with holiday meals.
Rabbi Nachum Braverman writes, "On Rosh Hashana we make an accounting of our year and we pray repeatedly for life. How do we justify another year of life? What did we do with the last year? Has it been a time of growth, of insight and of caring for others? Did we make use of our time, or did we squander it? Has it truly been a year of life, or merely one of mindless activity? This is the time for evaluation and rededication. The Jewish process is called “teshuva,” coming home -- recognizing our mistakes between ourselves and God as well as between ourselves and our fellow man and then correcting them."
On Rosh Hashana we pray that we are inscribed in the Book of Life for life, for health, for sustenance. It is the Day of Judgment. Yet, we celebrate with festive meals with family and friends. How can we celebrate when our very lives hang in balance?
Ultimately, it is because we trust in the kindness and mercy of the Almighty ... that He knows our heart and our intentions and with love and knowledge of what is best for us, will accordingly grant us a good decree for the new year.
It would seem to make more sense to have the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur) before the Day of Judgment (Rosh Hashana). However, until we recognize our Creator and internalize the magnitude and consequences of our actions, we cannot truly seek to change ourselves or to seek atonement. That is why the three essential themes of Rosh Hashana are:
Zichronot (Providence) and
The musaf (additional) prayer service is structured around these three themes.
The Book of Our Heritage clarifies:
In the Kingship section we acknowledge God's creation of all existence, His active supervision of the entire universe, and our acceptance of His eternal rule. It is our job on Rosh Hashana to make God our King.
In the Providence section we proclaim our understanding that: 1) the Creator has a one on one relationship with every human being 2) God cares about what we do with our lives and sees and remembers everything 3) there are Divine consequences for our actions.
In the Revelation section we accept the Torah as if it were given once again with thunder and lightning and mighty shofar blasts. We also await the final redemption which is to be heralded by the "shofar of the mashiach (messiah)."
At the festive meal both nights of Rosh Hashana it is customary to dip the challah (special round bread for Rosh Hashana) as well as an apple, into honey symbolizing our hopes for a sweet year. There is a custom to eat various Symbolic Foods -- primarily fruits and vegetables -- each one preceded by a request. For instance, before eating a pomegranate, "May it be Your will ... that our merits increase like (the seeds of) a pomegranate." Many of the requests are based on "plays on words" between the name of the food and the request. The "plays on words" are lost on many who don't know Hebrew, but there is a deep, kabbalistic power in these requests.
Another custom is Tashlich, a symbolic casting off of transgressions. It is done after Mincha, the afternoon prayers, on the first day of Rosh Hashana -- and on the second day when the first day of Rosh Hashana falls out on Shabbat. Remember -- these symbolic acts help you relate to what you need to do in life, to awaken your emotions and passions; they are not an end in themselves. This is a season to grow in spirituality, to come closer to the Almighty, to perfect yourself and to perfect the world!
Thoughts to Ponder Before Rosh Hashana:
There is a Midrash (a commentary on the Five Books of Moses in the form of a parable) about a successful businessman who meets a former colleague down on his luck. The colleague begs the successful business man for a substantial loan to turn around his circumstances. Eventually, the businessman agrees to a 6 month loan and gives his former colleague the money. At the end of the 6 months, the businessman goes to collect his loan. The former colleague gives him every last penny. However, the businessman notices that the money is the exact same coins he loaned the man. He was furious! "How dare you borrow such a huge amount and not even use it? I gave this to you to better your life!" The man was speechless.
Likewise, the Almighty gives each of us a soul. He doesn't want us to return it to Him at the end of our days in the same condition that we received it. He wants us to better ourselves, to enhance our souls by doing the mitzvot (613 commandments). It is up to us to sit down before Rosh Hashana and make a list of what we need to correct in our lives between us and our fellow beings, us and God and us and ourselves!
Yeshua taught the same principle in Matthew 25:14-30 – the parable of the talents.
"Then the one who had received the one talent also came up and said, ‘Master, I knew that you are a hard man, reaping where you didn't sow and gathering where you scattered no seed. So I was afraid, and I went off and hid your talent in the ground. See, you have what is yours.' "But his master responded, ‘You wicked, lazy servant! You knew that I reap where I didn't sow and gather where I scattered no seed? Then you should have brought my money to the brokers, and when I came I would have received it back with interest. Therefore take the talent away from him, and give it to the one who has the ten talents. For to the one who has, more shall be given, and he shall have an abundance. But from the one who does not have, even what he does have shall be taken away.
The story is told of an elderly sage named Reb Zusia who lay on his deathbed surrounded by his students and disciples. He was crying and no one could comfort him.
One student asked his Rebbe, "Why do you cry? You were almost as wise as Moses and as kind as Abraham." Reb Zusia answered, "When I pass from this world and appear before the Heavenly Tribunal, they won't ask me, 'Zusia, why weren't you as wise as Moses or as kind as Abraham,' rather, they will ask me, 'Zusia, why weren't you Zusia?' Why didn't I fulfill my potential, why didn't I follow the path that could have been mine."
On Rosh Hashana, we confront our potential as human beings, but even more so, as those who fear the Almighty! Let each of us use the opportunity to re-evaluate our lives, our potentials, and our commitment to our God, our Torah, our People and ourselves. A sweet year to you and yours!
On the day of Moshe's death, he assembles the whole Jewish people and creates a Covenant confirming the Jewish people as the Almighty's Chosen People for all future generations. Moshe makes clear the consequences of rejecting God and His Torah as well as the possibility of repentance. He reiterates that Torah is readily available to everyone. He warns us against idolatry (thinking anything other than God has power) and assures us that eventually the Jewish people will do teshuva (repent) and will be redeemed and brought back to the land of Israel -- and those who hate the Jewish people and pursue us will get their just recompense.
Nitzavim commences with ‘you are standing here today…”. In spite of the shortcomings and apostasy of your parent’s generation; in spite of our own weaknesses and sins, …. You are standing here today, poised to cross over and take possession of the Land promised to the Patriarchs. The message is “God is Faithful to every promise that He has spoken! At the appointed time, it will come to pass”.
So then it does not depend on the one who wills or the one who strives, but on God who shows mercy.
Nitzavim's concludes with perhaps the clearest and most powerful statement in the Torah about the purpose of life and the existence of freewill: "I have set before you this day life and good, death and evil ... the blessing and the curse. Therefore, choose life that you may live, you and your descendants."
May we daily choose to walk on the narrow way of life, no matter how much it squeezes our flesh!