The Real Rosh Hashanah
It’s not our fault we’re clueless. Rosh Hashanah has to be the most mysterious day in the Torah.
Other Jewish holidays are thoroughly transparent. Passover—everyone knows we’re commemorating the Exodus (and Spring). Shavuot—we’ve got the Mount Sinai Experience to recall, along with the wheat harvest. Sukkot—we’re commemorating the 40 years of divine protection in the post-slavery Great Wandering, along with the final harvest of the year.
Yom Kippur—perhaps a little puzzling at first glance. But if you do the math it’s exactly 120 days from Shavuot—giving Moses 40 days on the mountain getting the Torah until the golden calf debacle, another 40 days to plead for forgiveness, and another 40 days on the mountain to carve out Tablets 2.0, at which point he comes back down and all the people see they were forgiven. Therefore, a great day to get forgivenG‑d tells us to keep a holiday without explaining why and for what every year.
But Rosh Hashanah? Not much data:
In the seventh month, on the first day of the month, you shall have a holiday. Don’t do any work. You will have a day of horn-blowing.
Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman (“Nachmanides”) hit the nail on the head: “G‑d tells us to keep a holiday without explaining why and for what,” he said. “And then He tells us it’s a day for blowing a horn—but with no hint of what sort of horn, how to blow it or why we are blowing it!”1
Hang in there—we have an unbroken tradition that tells us just what we have to do, what instrument to toot, and how to toot it. And we have plenty of scriptural allusions to support this tradition. We even have a tradition that this is the anniversary of the creation of the human being. As usual, without tradition the whole thing is almost unintelligible.
But still, this is a big day for Jews. Why the reticence? Why can’t the Torah come out in the open and say clearly what this is all about?
It seems the Torah cannot. And that could only be because this day is so deep, so intimate, it simply cannot be said. There are no words. It’s just something you either get or you don’t get.
So what is it we don’t get?
Yom Kippur as Laundry Day
To explain that, I have to deal first with Yom Kippur. It’s translated as “The Day of Atonement.” That’s a very nice title with a lot of meaning, because, as I wrote elsewhere, it certainly is a day of at-onement, on which we are all one, and we and G‑d are one. But “atonement” is most definitely not the translation of the word “kippur.”
Kippur or Kappara literally means “cleansing.” Not in the sense of cleaning tough grease and muddy stains. No—spiritual cleansing. Like when someone is caught up in terrible addictions, just going deeper and deeper into the mud—until finally he turns around and with a little help from his friends, we say, “he goes clean.”
On Yom Kippur, we all go clean. Yom KippurYom Kippur is G‑d’s laundry day, and we, the souls of humanity, are his laundry. is G‑d’s laundry day, and we, the souls of humanity, are his laundry.
So it’s not just forgiveness, it’s not just “Hey, we’re sorry. Can we get a good year now?” No, it’s “Let’s put all this behind us. Let’s pretend none of it every happened. Let’s fall back in love with one another, G‑d and us, as things always were and are supposed to be.”
And now you can see my point. Because if we’re going to go straight to Yom Kippur without the deep and mysterious day of Rosh Hashanah, then we’re just way out of context. We’re just setting up G‑d to turn around and answer, “Excuse me? Do I know you from somewhere?”
Look, we’re talking about G‑d here. Not some deity atheists don’t believe in and we don’t either. We’re talking about the One from Whom all thoughts and desires derive, all consciousness, all time and all space. The One Who precedes all existence. We and our entire universe might as well not exist as far as He is concerned. And here we’re trying to cuddle up with Him like we’ve known each other since the very beginning.
Have we? Maybe. Let’s dig deeper.
Forward to the Beginning
On Rosh Hashanah, writes Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, all things return to their origin.
What lies there at their origin? Their tachlis. Tachlis—that’s another of those juicy, untranslatable Hebrew/Yiddish words, something like telos in classic Greek, but with a Jewish flavor.
For example: “Let’s talk tachlis” means “get to the point already.”
Your tachlis is your meaning, your purpose and your ultimate destiny. Each thing exists for some tachlis.
So let’s talk tachlis with G‑d. What’s the tachlis with this whole “In the beginning…” idea of His?
Boredom? There was no time in which to be bored—time didn’t exist yet. Nothing was missing. Nothing had to be. Anything could have been. Or not been.
So there’s no real reason or impetusWhat’s the tachlis? There’s got to be some single theme and unifying element upon which the entire cosmos is hanging. out of any lacking. But there must have been a primal thought, an original seed of all being. And that seed represents the tachlis of all being, and of each and every being.
To put it another way: There’s got to be some single theme and unifying element upon which the entire cosmos is hanging. And it’s got to be something that involves every last character and prop from the beginning to the end of this drama.
What has to get done to make this cosmic mega-story work?
Here’s the obvious candidate, hiding right there in your High Holiday Prayer Book:
“…and every thing that is caused will know that You caused it, and every thing that is formed will know that You formed it…”
In the language of the prophets, of the Talmud and of the liturgy, it’s called “declaring G‑d king.” Since we don’t like kings nowadays, we’ll call it “providing fair attribution to the Author.”
The meaning is the same: As with every drama, the tachlis is that the Dramatist should be expressed within every nuance of His drama, the Composer within every note of His music, the Artist within every stroke of His art.
Without that, there’s no point to this whole creation business. Without that, the entire investment might as well go down the drain. Well, actually, it could just disappear into the nothingness from whence it came, time and space and consciousness, the whole caboodle—and it never would have been to begin with.
So that is what we accomplish on Rosh Hashanah. In the language of the Talmud, on Rosh Hashanah, G‑d says, “Make Me your king.” We declare Him Sole Author, Master, Composer, Creator and King of the Entire Universe. We blow a shofar. We commit to doing more mitzvahs, more acts of kindness, as is the bidding of the King.
As a result, the universe is given another year’s lease on existence. Because the theme seems to be coming along, after all.
We are the lynchpin of creation.
The Lost King
At this point, the only way to explain further is to tell a story. Here’s a parable told by none other than the beloved tzadik, Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev:2
A king took a royal hike in the royal forest to enjoy nature, watch the deer, the birds and all the creatures of his royal kingdom play. But eventually he found himself royally lost, without a clue to find the royal highway that takes you straight back to the palace.
He saw some villagers and he asked them, “Excuse me. Do you know the way to the king’s royal highway?”
But they did not recognize him as the king, and even if they did, they had nothing to tell him—they had never traveled on the royal highway and didn’t even know one existed.
Eventually, the king found a wise and understanding person. He asked, “Do you know the way to the king’s royal highway?”
The wise person grasped that this must be the king. He trembled and stepped back, and then immediately showed the king the way—for, due to his great wisdom, he knew the straight and proper path of the king’s highway. He even took the king to his palace and seated him on the royal throne of his kingdom.
This wise man found much grace in the eyes of the king, so the king appointed him above all the ministers of his kingdom and gowned him in precious garments. As for his old clothes, those the king commanded to be stored in the royal treasury chamber.
And yet it came to be, after many years had passed, that this wise man committed a crime against the king. The king was infuriated and commanded that his royal court convene to try this man for treason.
The wise man was, of course, quite troubled. He knew his judgment was not going to be good. It was, after all, treason that he had committed.
So he went before the king and threw himself before him. He pleaded for one last request before his sentencing.
“And what is that?” the king asked.
“That is,” the wise man answered, “that I be permitted to dress once again in my clothes that I wore when we first met.”
The king agreed to this request, and when he beheld the wise man dressed in those clothes, he recalled the great kindness this man had done for him when he had brought him back to his palace and sat him upon the royal throne of his kingdom.
The king’s compassion was stirred. The wise man once again found grace in his eyes. The king acquitted him of his crime and returned him to his royal station.
The Day of Origins
Rabbi Levi Yitzchak explained that his story was really our story on Rosh Hashanah. We restored the King of the world his throne when we accepted His Torah, amidst the sounding of a great shofar. So we remind Him of that favor we did for Him on our day of judgment.
Yet, it’s obvious that the story must contain much more than that. After all, if it could be stated so simply in those two sentences, why did he have to tell an entire parable to make his point?
For one thing, the story is also about how, on Rosh Hashanah, every being returns to its origin. This king and this wise man, they also had to return to their origin. The wise man had to return to that place where he first recognized that this was the king, to that point where there was no possibility that he would not do all he could to assist the king, never mind rebel against him.
It was that original wise man that the king now sawOn Rosh Hashanah, all things return to their origin. And that includes our souls. before him. This man to whom he owed his entire kingdom, for in those distant woods he was not king, and if not for this man, he would never have been king again.
Had this man sinned against him? No, not this wise man. That would not be possible. Rather, some corrupted, later version of his persona had surrendered to wicked temptation. The wise man himself, in his pristine origin, was purely good and eminently loyal.
We, too, return to our origin. That is the most essential meaning of the shofar blowing. It is a primal scream, a reaching deeper and yet deeper into the heart and soul, to a place that cannot be spoken, that cannot be articulated in any way other than as the raw, primitive call of an animal’s horn. It is our origin, the initial conception of a being capable of discovering the Author within the story, the King within His Kingdom. That which we call the human soul.
“They sat with the king in his craft…”3
“With whom did He consult when He came to make the world? With the souls of the righteous.”4
And so the Great Magid of Mezritch, the great teacher of teachers, heir to the Baal Shem Tov, taught that the very first seed of being that lies at the essence of all things can be found deep at the core of the human soul.5 So to speak, it was that core-essence of our souls with whom G‑d consulted before the very outset of Creation.
And yet deeper: What was it that G‑d chose as His tachlis in this creation business? In truth, it was nothing less than a glimmer of Himself. As an author desires to breathe into his work the most intimate expression of his own self—the same, indeed, with any artist or creator—so the Creator of All Things desires that each and all of His creations should speak out His unspeakable essential being.
In that sense, we are very much His brainchild—our souls, at their origin, are that glimmer of Self that He envisioned within His creation.
Which is why Yom Kippur can only be after that day of the beginning of all beginnings, once things have returned to their origin, on Rosh Hashanah. When we return to our essential tachlis as well.
Because there we are not strangers. Because there, yes, we do live in an intimate relationship with the Creator of all things. Because there, when we return to that place, then G‑d says, “I have found you, and you are a pure and innocent child.” And now we can say, “So let us begin all over again. How could anything come between us?”
Because it all depends on us.6
Who Needs It?
Just as you thought we had everything solved, it turns out we have only created for ourselves a yet bigger problem: Who needs Yom Kippur altogether?
On Rosh Hashanah, as explained, the pristine quintessence of our souls bursts out in all its glory in the cry of the shofar. Now there are no stains of sins, no wounds of battle. Whatever occurred here in our world, within time and space—none of this could ever affect that connection between the very essence of your soul and the very essence of G‑d.
If so, everything is forgiven. Just as the king must forgiveWe have only created for ourselves a yet bigger problem: Who needs Yom Kippur altogether?the wise man who brought him back to his throne, so G‑d forgives every Jew.
So who needs Yom Kippur?
The answer is that you do. You, down here, within time and space, a soul packaged in meat and bones going about the things that meat and bone organisms do—you need a cleansing. Just because everything’s hunky-dory on the top floor doesn’t mean that the basement can ignore its mess.
Take a look at the things we say on Rosh Hashanah. Go through the entire machzor (the festival prayer book) and you’ll very little mention of sins. None of the long alefbetical lists of “For the sin that we have committed before You by …” that we repeat over and over on Yom Kippur. Not even a “Please forgive us and we’ll never do it again!” Like we never did anything wrong.
Because we didn’t. Not this person now who was released during that shofar blast. That’s a pure soul, as it was at its very origin.
Problem is, you can’t stay at your origin. You have to go out into the world. You have. And at that point, you can easily become disconnected from your origin—which is what we call a sin: Anything a person can do to become alienated from his or her essential self. Which is what happens when a Jewish soul chooses to do something contrary to the Torah.
Now imagine we went straight from Rosh Hashanah into the year. It would be like nothing happened. All a dream. Like those situations when a great new idea pops into your mind and before you have a chance to hold onto it and allow it to develop you jump into something else. Poof. “Beautiful great idea” just disappeared into the nowhere-land from whence it came.
Same could happen with this beautiful shofar essence-event of Rosh Hashanah. Because nothing was done with it. Just another lost potential.
So you don’t do that. Instead, you have a ten day period to acclimate your entire person, from head to toe, to this new, emergent personality; to feel out all the aspects of your character that are inconsistent, incongruent and inharmonious with the song your soul wants to sing and get them in tune.
Those days are called “The Ten Days of Teshuvah.”7 Teshuvah means to return, and these are the days when your entire persona can return to harmony with its true self.
In the language of the Kabbalah of the Ari Hakadosh, Rabbi Isaac Luria, this period is a time for binyan ha-malchut—rebuilding the kingdom.8 Your malchut, or kingdom, is that persona of yours—the way you deal with the world around you. On Rosh Hashanah, you begin restructuring all that, beginning from the very top and working down.
The final step comes on Yom Kippur. On Yom Kippur all that happened on Rosh Hashanah now comes out in the open—and down to the very physicalness of the human body. That’s why we can’t eat on Yom Kippur—even though we feast on Rosh Hashanah. Because step by step, every story of your human building has been lifted and connected to a much higher place, until your physical body itself becomes so spiritual that eating and drinking would rip it violently away from its source of life.
On Yom Kippur, your body lives off hunger. Divine hunger.
As it turns out, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are a single process: Get to the origin of all things and bring that down to earth, so that it transforms everything about you and sticks with you the whole year long.
Rabbi Berel Wolf of Koznikov used to ask:
Why is it so hard for a Jew to make a living? The Talmud says it’s as hard as the splitting of the Red Sea! But the Talmud also says that all the needs of every Jew are set aside on Rosh Hashanah. If it’s just a matter of cashing in on a bill owed from the beginning of the year, why is it so hard?
And he answered:
When the oceans and seas were set in place on the third day of creation, the rabbis say that the Creator made a stipulation with the angel appointed over them: That when the Children of Israel would arrive at the Red Sea, it would part its waters.
But when the Children of Israel finally arrived, the Red Sea at first refused to part. G‑d asked the appointed angel, “Why isn’t the sea splitting?”
The angel replied, “It will split. As soon as the Children of Israel arrive there, it will split.”
You see, the angel had been shown all the Jewish souls as they stood in the heavens above. But now, these were the Jewish souls after they had descended into this world and borne the oppression and humiliation of exile and slavery.
So G‑d had to explain to the angel that these were the same souls. But to explain to an angel what exile and oppression can do to a soul is very hard.
So too, when a Jew is judged on Rosh Hashanah, all the angels appointed over distribution of divine blessings and abundance are instructed to fill this Jew’s plate every day of the year. But when it comes time for those blessings to flow, the angels claim the Jew they saw on Rosh Hashanah is nowhere to be found.
And then G‑d has to explain to those angels that this little Jew over here is the same Jew they saw standing in the synagogue when the shofar was sounded on the holy day of Rosh Hashanah. It’s just that the Jew had to go out into the world and work for a living. And this is something very hard: to explain to an angel what working for a living in a physical world can do to a divine soul.
A Jew has to live in two worlds at once—and connect those two worlds. That’s our job in this world: to hold tight to that essence of our soul at its originLive in two worlds. Connect two worlds. Make all things holy. It’s called a mitzvah. and bring it down to saturate all the human activities that humans must do the whole year long. To make all things holy.
That’s why it’s so vital that during the Ten Days of Teshuvah from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur, we bring all our inspiration down into practical details. Little details. Like putting up a kosher mezuzah on a door of your house that’s still missing one. Like placing a charity box in your place of work. Like choosing to say a blessing out loud before eating your food.
They’re little things, easy to take through the door as you leave those Days of Awe and walk out into the world. But they’re all the more powerful. They’re the divine signature on G‑d’s creation.
Which is, after all, the theme of all this universe, the tachlis for which it was created. To bring that original theme down to earth. To autograph every finite instance of the creation with the mark of an infinite Creator.
And we are the lynchpin. It’s all up to us.