A major theme of Rosh Hashana is Malkiyut ― making God our King. This entails recognition of and submission to a higher authority. The whole season engenders a feeling that "I can't just do what I feel like, because there's Someone Who runs this place."
What is it that we're submitting to? And what does this submission demand of us?
The Torah quotes God as saying "I've put before you today life and good, death and evil; choose life." Amazingly, God tells us that the choice of life is up to us!
God is King but the choice is ours?! It's paradoxical but there's a beautiful resolution: Generally speaking, submission means helplessness and relinquishing control. Here we're really submitting to a sense of responsibility for ourselves. "It's all up to me."
The constant theme of the "Viduy" confession is: "I didn't live up to my responsibility and I didn't do what I could for myself." We regret being infantile and neglecting responsibility. Rosh Hashana is the day the Jew celebrates maturity and being responsible for doing what he knows is true and good, rather than doing what he feels like at the moment.
Humble Before God
Making God King doesn't mean surrender in the form of leaving everything up to Him. It's realizing that God wants what's best for you. This is obvious if you understand what God is saying: "Use your brains. Wake up, grow up, and realize where you are going and what you are doing. Be responsible for your life."
The foremost responsibility is to work out what is right by studying, thinking and understanding. Figure out what you are living for and what your goals are and how you will achieve them, and understand the consequences of stupidity and impulsiveness. This is not surrendering to an outside force or a humble submission. It's uplifting and it feels great!
People get confused about the definition of humility. Making yourself "small before God" doesn't mean telling yourself you are a "nobody." It means you are getting rid of every aspect of yourself that may distance you from God. It means that all your distractions and cravings are put in their proper perspective. It's taking your issues and realizing that one side is healthy and wholesome ― and another side is nothingness.
Maimonides explains the mitzvah of "fearing God:" After you recognize the Almighty's greatness, you are spontaneously filled with awe and deep humility. You ask yourself "Who am I, a lowly being, to stand before Him?"
This doesn't mean saying, "I am a nobody." It means recognizing that God is the one source of success. Don't be a big shot and think you can provide yourself with an independent source of success and actually be happy. That's the submission: submitting to the reality that there is only one road, and that there are no shortcuts to true greatness, happiness and success. There is no other alternative.
Maturity Means Choosing
We can now properly understand the "Viduy" prayer. Saying "I have sinned" isn't paying lip service to the bully, and hoping he'll be nice to you. It is the intellectual recognition that you've neglected responsibility. It's an admission that crime doesn't pay and that being irresponsible will get you nowhere. Sure, it's fun going through life being a kid and playing with toys, but is that really all you want?!
"Viduy" means recognizing that up until now you have followed your impulses, never really choosing, letting your life simply unfold and being more of an observer than an active participant. It's the realization that reality is passing you by and that it's not going to wait for you. And if you don't grow up now you are going to miss it.
This theme of "maturity" is woven throughout Judaism. For example, Bar/Bat Mitzvah is the day a Jew becomes responsible. A child at the age of 13 does not know everything, but is old enough to start asking questions. You begin to recognize that there are people older and wiser who can give the right direction. Until this point, it was up to the adults to find a way to get you to listen. Suddenly at 13 you are responsible. And you celebrate it, because in Judaism we are proud of maturity and it is something to look forward to.
This is why a younger child is not counted in a minyan. How can he be a part of a scale model of the Jewish nation if Judaism stands for maturity and he is not yet mature? This is what the Bar Mitzvah represents ― from now on you are a responsible human being.
Not Being Superficial
On Rosh Hashana we re-clarify and restate our dedication to responsibility: We have strayed, yet we have come back to our senses. And we celebrate it.
But be careful not to miss the point. It's easy to build up to a submission to a higher being and turn it into a surrender to the "big bully in the sky." Make sure you are not guilty of doing superficial things to "appease the gods."
On Rosh Hashana there are many possible distractions: putting all the significance into dipping the apple in honey, banging your chest harder and harder, making unrealistic resolutions that may not even deal with your issues, choosing the right place to pray and the right clothes to wear, and reading the Viduy books in which the author writes down all the sins he thinks you may have done.
That is not submitting to responsibility. It's escaping it. Don't be superficial. Let us all have a meaningful growth process this High Holiday season.