GOOD MORNING! Rosh Hashanah begins this upcoming Friday evening, September 18th. Rosh Hashanah is a two day holiday and begins on the first day of the Hebrew month of Tishrei, marking the Jewish New Year. Unlike the secular New Year that is celebrated in many parts of the "enlightened" world by partying, drinking to excess, and watching a little ball descend a tower in Times Square, the Jewish New Year is celebrated very differently.

Rosh Hashanah marks the beginning of the Ten Days of Repentance, which culminate on Yom Kippur – The Day of Atonement. Typically, Rosh Hashanah is observed by Jews all over the world who attend synagogue to pray, hear the sound of the shofar (ram’s horn), listen to the rabbi’s sermon, reflect upon the past, commit to correct one's mistakes, and praying for a healthy and sweet year. This is followed by celebrating with festive holiday meals.

Sadly, many if not most, only make an effort to attend synagogue on the High Holy Days of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. It is therefore only natural that most synagogues charge enormous amounts for “tickets” to attend – it is their one opportunity to raise the needed monies to fund the operations of the synagogue. (Reflecting on this I realize that if I only came to synagogue three times a year and had to spend most of the day there in prayer services and listening to the rabbi while paying an exorbitant sum for that privilege, I also wouldn’t want to attend more than three times a year.)

Needless to say, the coronavirus will impact Rosh Hashanah as well. Many synagogues have either cancelled services or drastically changed how they are delivered. The need for social distancing has caused those that remain open to block off many seats and significantly shorten the liturgy to accommodate a second service.

Still, many are either unable or unwilling to attend services this year and it is more important than ever that we understand the essence of Rosh Hashanah and how to observe it, whether we manage to make it to synagogue or not.

Q & A: WHAT IS THE ESSENCE OF ROSH HASHANAH AND HOW DO WE OBSERVE IT?

According to Jewish tradition, Rosh Hashanah is the Day of Judgment. The Talmud states that (Rosh Hashanah 8a) this is derived by the from a pair of verses in Psalms: “Sound the shofar at the new month, at the time when it is covered, for the day of our festival. For it is a statute for Israel, a (day of) judgment for the God of Jacob” (Psalms 81:4-5). Thus we pray that we are inscribed in the Book of Life for life, for health, and for sustenance.

Many years ago, I attended a trial of a good friend who was wrongfully charged with some very serious crimes and, if convicted, would spend decades of his life behind bars. The feeling in the courtroom was one of dread and palpable apprehension. I remember being very afraid for him and I could barely eat or sleep. Indeed, for many this is what Rosh Hashanah is all about. But this perception is a mistake.

According to Jewish tradition, Rosh Hashanah is a time when we celebrate with elegant clothes, festive meals with family and friends, and by sending gifts to others. This is based on the verse found in the Prophets: He said to them, ‘Go eat fat foods and drink sweet beverages, and send gifts to anyone for whom nothing was prepared, for today is holy to our Master. Do not be sad, for the joy of Hashem is your strength’” (Nehemiah 8:10).

How can we celebrate when our very lives hang in the balance? Ultimately, we must trust in the kindness and mercy of the Almighty – that He knows our hearts and our intentions and judges us with love and the knowledge of what is best for us. Therefore, we believe that He will accordingly grant us a good decree for the new year. But there is really a much deeper lesson to understand here.

In a typical court of law when a person is being judged, what is the best result he could possibly hope for? The best possible outcome is that he be restored to the life that he had prior to entering the courtroom. In other words, he can only lose, he has no possible upside. In fact, after paying his attorney and court costs he is already far poorer than when he began. Essentially, he already lost; it’s only a question of whether he also loses his freedom. That is a devastating situation in which to find oneself.

But Rosh Hashanah, our “Day of Judgement,” is very different. According to Jewish tradition, the world was created on the 25th day of Elul and man was created on the first of Tishrei. Thus, man was actually created on Rosh Hashanah! Why is this important?

The great medieval philosopher, Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzato, explains in his classic work The Way of God that God created the world in order to bestow kindness on mankind. The very purpose of creation was a gift so that man could experience the most amazing life.

But God, in His infinite wisdom, understood that ultimately a gift is never fully appreciated. As we know, a person often feels ashamed to accept a gift, and in fact a person only feels fulfilled when he has acquired something that he has earned through his efforts. Thus, man was given the opportunity to earn an existence.

Every Rosh Hashanah, the anniversary of mankind’s creation, we are given an opportunity to earn existence. This is the EXACT opposite of a typical courtroom judgment. We can absolutely hope for an improvement in every aspect of our lives and we have much to gain on our Day of Judgement, which is why Rosh Hashanah can be a day of amazing fulfillment and joy, one to be celebrated with friends and family.

Now, everyone wants to have a more meaningful and fulfilling life. We want God to bless us with an amazing year filled with every blessing imaginable. How do we begin to achieve this?

We start by actively accepting God as our king and ruler of everything in existence. If we look at the liturgy on Rosh Hashanah this theme of God as our king is clearly evident as the major focus of the day. Our job is to define ourselves as living in a theocentric world, a world in which we are committed to living by His laws and bringing Him into our daily lives and into the lives of others.

Rosh Hashanah is much less about begging forgiveness from God than it is about establishing a relationship with Him and creating the rightful place for God in your life. The process of teshuvah (repentance) can only begin once a relationship is in place. (We will discuss the process of repentance further in next week’s column.)

A key element to understanding Rosh Hashanah is that life is a gift from the Almighty and it is therefore quite precious. Consequently, we are charged with making it meaningful and making sure that we live up to our potential and earn our continued existence.

I am going to end this week’s column by reprinting a list of questions that appeared in a previous column by our teacher and mentor, Rabbi Kalman Packouz, of blessed memory.

SOME QUESTIONS TO THINK ABOUT IN SYNAGOGUE OR DISCUSS AT YOUR ROSH HASHANAH MEALS

  1. When do I most feel that my life is meaningful?
  2. How often do I express my feelings to those who mean the most to me?
  3. Are there any ideals I would be willing to die for?
  4. What would bring me more happiness than anything else in the world?
  5. What are my three most significant achievements since last Rosh Hashanah?
  6. What are the three biggest mistakes I've made since last Rosh Hashanah?
  7. What project or goal, if left undone, will I most regret next Rosh Hashanah?
  8. What are my three major goals in life? What am I doing to achieve them? What practical steps can I take in the next two months toward these goals?
  9. If I could give my children only three pieces of advice, what would they be?
  10. What is the most important decision I need to make this year?
  11. What important decision did I avoid making last year?
  12. What did I do last year that gave me the strongest feeling of self-respect?
  13. When do I feel closest to God?
  14. What are the most important relationships in my life? What can I do to nurture those relationships this year?
  15. If I could change only one thing about myself, what would that be?
  16. If I could change one thing about my spiritual life, what would it be?

Wishing you and yours a sweet New Year, one filled only with blessings and the good health and peace of mind to enjoy it all!

Torah Portion of the Week

Rosh Hashanah

Because the first day of Rosh Hashanah occurs on Shabbat, the special Torah reading supersedes the usual weekly portion (which is thus pushed forward to next Shabbat). On the first day of Rosh Hashanah we read Genesis 21 regarding the Almighty remembering Sarah and Sarah giving birth to Isaac (the Almighty remembered Sarah on Rosh Hashanah). The second day of Rosh Hashanah we read Genesis 22 regarding "Aikedas Yitzchak," the test of Avraham to prepare his son, Isaac, as a sacrifice; this, too, took place on Rosh Hashanah.

Candle Lighting Times

(or go to http://www.aish.com/sh/c/)

Jerusalem 6:05
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Hong Kong 6:06 - Honolulu 6:12 - Johannesburg 5:44
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Quote of the Week

Every ending is a beginning. We just don't know it at the time.
– Mitch Albom


Dedicated with Deep Appreciation to

Jennifer Volz, Neal Goldberg,
and Alice & Jack Gish

 

In loving memory of
Rabbi Kalman Packouz
Kalman Moshe ben Reuven Avigdor
1950-2019

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Yitzchak Zweig

Copyright © 2020 Rabbi Yitzchak Zweig