I met a young guy on the golf course who recently got engaged. I told him the best wedding advice I ever received was to take a moment during the reception, stand off to the side with your bride and just take it all in – the people, the friends, the party, the joy. As our writers demonstrate this week, Rosh Hashanah is a time to do the same thing…
Table for Five: Rosh Hashanah
Edited by Salvador Litvak, the Accidental Talmudist
There are four days in the year that serve as the New Year, and each has a different purpose… The first day of Tishrei is the New Year for counting years. -Rosh Hashanah 2a, B. Talmud
Rivkah Slonim, Education Director, Rohr Chabad Center at Binghamton University
Rosh Hashanah is the day that makes every other day matter; even the other three “New Years.” Rosh Hashana, teach the Chassidic Masters, is about reinstating God’s Kingship over us. This is affected through making our will subservient to His, thus evoking His desire to reign over us. And specifically, that it be with taanug, pleasure, as a result of how deeply we matter to God. This spiritual service is referred to as binyan Hamalchut, building the Monarchy.
Conventionally we think of Rosh Hashanah as being all about us – our health, our prosperity, our happiness in the coming year. But really, it’s about God; His becoming King over us again, and being enthusiastic about the prospect. That is the question of Yom Hadin, the Day of Judgement: do we have a real relationship with God? This explains why Rosh Hashanah comes before Yom Kippur; it would seem to make more sense to first work on atonement and then come before God to ask for our needs. But if we don’t have a relationship then nothing else matters. Asking for forgiveness has to wait until we actually solidify our relationship.
An ohr chodosh, a new light, energizes the world each Rosh Hashanah. This novel, vivifying energy must come down into this world. The question is: will we have a share in drawing down this effluence? Will we allow it to illuminate our lives? Will we use it to evoke God’s continued joy in His reign? God is hoping for a yes.
Miriam Yerushalmi, CEO SANE, Counselor, Author
Rosh Hashanah is the only holiday that begins on the first of the month, when the moon is hidden. The Alter Rebbe explains that this alludes to the concealment of Divine Chochmah, the wisdom with which the world was established. When the moon is hidden, at the end and beginning of each year, this wisdom is also hidden and withdrawn to its source, to be Divinely reawakened and re-energized.
The intensity of the light that is elicited into the world below has the potential every year to be greater than that of the preceding years; the level of intensity is determined by the strength with which we call it forth. On Rosh Hashanah, we affect this light through blowing the shofar and praying. This cycle of renewal is based, kabbalistically, on the slumber into which G-d put Adam on the first Rosh Hashanah, during which the mochin — the supernal intellectual attributes — were withdrawn, just as the human intellect is withdrawn during sleep.
Similarly, as our intellect and strength are revived by our daily prayers, the supernal wisdom is also affected. The blast of the shofar awakens us to pray with more intensity. May we be mindful, as we hear the shofar blast, that our intense prayers can draw this wisdom down to us as the year begins. But we do not have to wait for Rosh Hashanah to access and accrue this intellectual wherewithal. We count the years on the first of Tishrei, but our prayers count every day.
Rebecca Klempner, Author, Editor
When we write “Rosh Hashanah” with capital letters, everyone knows we’re talking about the first of the Hebrew month of Tishrei. How did Tishrei come to be elevated above the other “rosh hashanahs” in the Mishnah? The Ramban suggests that the extra honor accorded to Tishrei connects to Shabbat. Just as we labor for six days and then rest and enjoy the fruits of our efforts on Shabbat, farmers work in their fields six months starting in Nissan, and then rest and enjoy the fruits of their efforts during Tishrei.
Additionally, the Ramban suggests that Tishrei is the vessel which receives redemption, which he conceives as a process that begins at Passover and continues through the end of Elul.
How do we maximize these energies? Let’s create space for rest during Tishrei. Make time over the High Holidays and Sukkot to just be. Take pleasure in the results of our hard work. Count blessings; remember that food, clothing, and shelter come from God, who graces human efforts with success.
The pandemic has left us feeling confined. Nothing has fulfilled our expectations. Feeling gratitude for what God has sent our way this past year may be beyond some of us. If so, to acknowledge that God controls events—and that we can’t—will still help us crown God as our King, the central task of Rosh Hashanah.
Letting go of how we think things “should” be has another effect: It frees us to explore new possibilities. May we all find respite and redemption in 5781.
Rabbi Chaim Singer-Frankes, Interfaith Chaplain, Kaiser Panorama City
Each “New Year” in the Jewish calendar signifies a sacred interval. All are auspicious means for humbly and dutifully regulating our relationships: with the land, with one another, with governance, and with The Holy One. Accordingly, each “Rosh Hashanah” festival possesses both mundane and Divine significance. By judiciously observing this consecrated pattern, the community universally accepts the essential starting and ending points: the year of a King’s reign, crediting the plantings and yields of each harvest, and counting toward our Jubilee. God offers guidelines to avoid confusion in the reckoning of obligations, be they interpersonal or societal. It is a marvelous system of ordained pause marks which have the power to supersede the hectic and harried patterns of a year.
Seen as emblems, all New Years are intentionally strict, possessing epic overtones. For example, Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz of blessed memory clarifies that we are entirely forbidden to work our fields once the month of Tishrei begins. In this way we erase any doubt as to which year the sowings of a field belong, because for religious tithes and orlah (questionable fruit), there can be no wavering as to the year of a reaping’s provenance. From a spiritual perspective, The Avodat Yisrael references the Midrash Rabba on Exodus; The Holy One is known as “Rosh” (meaning The First) as is written in Isaiah 44:6 “I am the first, and I am the last, and beside Me there is no other God.” In summation, all the Rosh Hashanahs beautifully reorient us to faithfully verified priorities.
Rabbi Nolan Lebovitz, Adat Shalom
The first day of Tishrei, or Rosh Hashanah, has evolved into more than just a day when we count years. We count our personal blessings as we gather with loved ones (whether in person or on Zoom). We count on the familiar spirit and melodies of the services. We affiliate with Jewish institutions so that our support can be counted. Standing together with loved ones on this day matters. It counts. We count.
In terms of actually counting, the number 5781 holds less significance to me than the number 5. Five is for my wife, three kids, and me being together. This is my 5th Rosh Hashanah as the Rabbi at Adat Shalom. This is my 11th Rosh Hashanah as a father praying on behalf of my children. Or say, the number 15, as my wife and I just celebrated 15 years of marriage, saying L’David together every evening for weeks. We’ll all remember 5780 and 5781 for its adversity. However, we should remember that the quantity of years is not what the holidays are about. This New Year is about looking inside, and standing together in relationship with God, and most importantly standing together in relationship with one another.
More than ever, Rosh Hashanah is about examining the quality of our lives. Don’t waste time on things that don’t matter. Count the most important relationships in your life. Then go strengthen them. Let’s not count our years. Let’s make our years count.
With thanks to Rivkah Slonim, Miriam Yerushalmi, Rebecca Klempner, Rabbi Chaim Singer-Frankes, and Rabbi Nolan Lebovitz
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