Ra’anana Community Kollel
The Jewish New Year
Rabbi Ben Goodman
Every Rosh Hashanah I wonder the same thing: How is it that for our New Year we end up in shul? A cursory glance at the world on the night of December 31st shows celebration, partying, and alcohol - seemingly good fun. For us, the New Year is a solemn, intense and awesome time. I finally decided that it was time to understand why our New Year is so different from the non-Jewish New Year. After much searching I happened across a piece written by Rav Chaim Friedlander, the late Mashgiach of the renowned Ponevich yeshivah. Learning this piece helped me to gain an insight into the meaning of Rosh Hashanah and what is expected of us on this unique day. Rav Chaim explains as follows:
Rosh Hashanah seems to contain three distinctive, yet seemingly unrelated elements. The most obvious is, as its name implies, the beginning of the year. Rosh Hashanah marks the time that Hashem created the world, the time from which physical existence began. Secondly, Rosh Hashanah is known as Yom Hadin, the day of judgement. On this day Hashem judges the entire world, both countries and people, and decides their fate for the coming year. It is in fact this element that makes Elul, the month before Rosh Hashanah, a time of preparation and repentance. In the same way that a criminal before his hearing will try to improve his ways and keep to the law, hoping to gain the favor of the judge, we too try to amend our ways hoping to find favor in Hashem’s eyes. Finally, the third element of Rosh Hashanah is malchut, rulership. Time and time again, in the davening on Rosh Hashanah we find ourselves declaring that Hashem is our Ruler. In each Shemoneh Esrei there are a number of petitions that the whole world recognize and accept Hashem as Ruler, We also conclude the third brachah of the Shemoneh Esrei with ‘HaMelech HaKadosh’ - the Holy Monarch. Furthermore, the gemarah in Rosh Hashanah (16a) quotes Hashem saying that on Rosh Hashanah you (the Jewish people) should say verses of supremacy so as to make me Sovereign over you. We see therefore, that Rosh Hashanah contains three distinctive elements: the beginning of the year, judgement and rulership. Is it purely coincidental that these three things should fall out on the same day, or is there perhaps a deeper idea connecting them all together?
We mentioned that Rosh Hashanah marks the beginning of creation. We would assume that this means the beginning of the creation of the world. However, our sages tell us that Rosh Hashanah was in fact when human beings were created. The creation of the world began on the 25th of Elul culminating with the creation of man and woman on the first of Tishrei. You may ask, what is the advantage of knowing when humans were created? The answer is one that holds tremendous significance. It was only once people were created that Hashem became Ruler. One can only be considered a ruler if one’s subjects accept one as such. Therefore, Rosh Hashanah marks not only the creation of human beings, but also the establishment of Hashem as Sovereign.
In the Mussaf davening on Rosh Hashanah we describe Rosh Hashanah in the following way:
‘Zeh ha’yom techilat ma’asecha, zikaron le’yom ha’rishon’ - This day is the beginning of your work, a remembrance to the first day.
The implication here is that each year Rosh Hashanah is the beginning of Hashem’s work, in the same way that the first Rosh Hashanah was. What exactly does this mean?
Imagine for a moment you begin a clothing business. You formulate a business plan for the coming year, employ a few workers and sure enough the business begins to grow. Soon there is a big demand for your products and the business expands. In order to keep on top of the business and make sure that it is running as efficiently as possible, each year, at the time when the business originally began, you implement an annual review. At this review, you look back at the business over the past year, it’s employees and it’s successes and accordingly you set an agenda for the coming year, an agenda that contains the means of arriving at the goal of your business.
R’ Chaim Friedlander explains in the name of the Ramchal, that each year on Rosh Hashanah, Hashem holds an annual review. G-d looks back at the previous year, at our performance and the point at which the world is currently standing. G-d then creates a new agenda for the coming year. Just as on the first Rosh Hashanah, Hashem became Ruler and implemented a plan for the coming year, so too each year Hashem reviews and sets the agenda for the coming year. This is the meaning of the statement ‘this day is the beginning of your work, a remembrance to the first day’.
We can now readily understand the nature of the judgement that takes place on Rosh Hashanah. Effectively we are being assessed as to the contribution we can make to Hashem’s ‘business’. Hashem looks at our previous year, our deeds and actions and determines what we will be able to offer in the coming year. According to the position and job G-d allocates to us, so too G-d will provide us with the resources necessary to fulfil it. Some people, Hashem may decide, are no longer needed; they have nothing more to contribute. Others G-d may decide to keep on but transfer to different departments. The judgement is not just an isolated event, rather it is an integral part of Rosh Hashanah - it is the means of creating the new agenda.
As we mentioned above, an agenda contains the means of arriving at the goal of the business. What is the goal of Hashem’s ‘business’? The goal is for Hashem to be accepted as Ruler by the entire world. This is what we pray for three times a day in the Aleinu prayer, and this is what the Jewish people proclaimed at the splitting of the sea when they saw clearly the existence of Hashem: ‘Hashem yimloch leolam va’ed’ - Hashem will reign forever. The agenda that is set each year is aimed at steering the world to this ultimate purpose. Although each year seems isolated and disconnected from the other, in truth each one is an important piece in bringing us to the ultimate purpose, Hashem being accepted as Ruler by the entire world. It follows therefore that the job that we are allocated depends very much on our commitment to this ultimate goal. An employer is much happier to employ someone who shares the same ideals as him and is motivated to achieve the same goals, than someone who is not interested at all in the success of the company. It is for this reason that on Rosh Hashanah we place such emphasis on proclaiming Hashem as Ruler, we are declaring our commitment to the ultimate goal. We hope that doing so will help us to be judged favorably.
Rosh Hashanah is the renewal of Hashem’s kingdom. This awesome day determines the entire year, our lives, our health, and even our financial situation. On this day we are being reviewed and assessed, and it is being decided what will be our role for the coming year. It seems to me that the reason that we are in shul on Rosh Hashanah and not partying in the streets is because Rosh Hashanah brings with it a tremendous responsibility. For the non- Jewish world, the New Year is merely a celebration of the passing of time with no bearing on their lives. For us, the New Year is a time when we accept the responsibility of helping Hashem’s rulership become recognized in the world. We spend our time in shul utilizing our prayers to help align ourselves with the ultimate purpose of creation and to earn a favorable judgement for the coming year, hopefully to be inscribed in the Book of Life and to merit seeing the whole world accept Hashem as Sovereign.