When the sun sets this Wednesday, we will be on the cusp of a new year. We will mark the beginning of the year with two days of Rosh Hashana, followed this year by Shabbat.
Rosh Hashana does not mean “new year” but rather “head of the year.”
When we study the human body, we can look at it from the feet up, or from the head down, but clearly, the head is the most important part of the human body, the one that influences and manages all the others. The head is the manager, where everything is determined.
So is Rosh Hashana not just the beginning of the new year, but the most significant day, the one that influences our actions throughout the year.
Rosh Hashana contains two parallel significances. On the one hand, based on ancient Jewish tradition, Rosh Hashana is the Day of Judgment, the day on which the Book of Life and the Book of Death are open. On this day, our deeds are examined and based on the result, it is decided if we are worthy of another year of good life.
On the other hand, when we look at the machzor, the prayer book for Rosh Hashana, we find that the central content of the holiday is kingship – anointing Hashem as king of the world.
On this day, we express our desire and hope that Divine righteousness will prevail and rule over the entire world.
Is there a connection between these two messages? To answer this question, we will look at the words of Rabbi Yaakov ben Asher (of the great poskim, or decisors, who lived in Spain in the 14th century). In his book Arba Turim, he describes the appropriate preparation for Rosh Hashana: “Rabbi Chanina and Rabbi Yehoshua say: What nation is like this nation that knows the character of its God – meaning His traditions and judgments. It is the way of the world that a man who stands in judgment wears black and wraps himself in black and grows his beard and does not trim his nails, since he does not know how his judgment will turn out; but Yisrael are not this way, [rather] they wear white and wrap themselves in white and shave their beards and trim their nails and eat and drink joyfully on Rosh Hashana, because they know that the Blessed be He will perform for them a miracle. Therefore, they customarily trim and wash on the eve of Rosh Hashana, and have a lot of food on Rosh Hashana” (Arba Turim, Orach Chayim Siman 5181).
This is surprising. What kind of trial is it if the person being judged knows in advance if he is going to be found innocent? And do we actually know the results of our judgment by our Creator on Rosh Hashana? The explanation for this is in the additional meaning of Rosh Hashana – the Day of Kingship, the day when we all hope for and desire full control of Divine will and righteousness over the world.
What is kingship? In our day, monarchies are rare, but we can also gain understanding of the concept of kingship by examining the democratic system of governance.
When a prime minister or president is elected for a term of office, what is the message that citizens are conveying to the chosen person? Trust! The citizens who elected him to run the affairs of state are expressing trust that this person is the most appropriate for this role; that he is the person who can best take care of the citizens’ well-being, welfare and security. That is the message of kingship.
When we say in the prayers of Rosh Hashana, “Rule over the entire world with Your honor,” we are telling God: I trust You, I count on You, I am convinced that You love me and take care of all my needs. This trust is the explanation of the words “a nation that knows the character of its God” – a nation that recognizes the goodness of God and therefore trusts Him completely.
Now we comprehend well the connection between the Day of Judgment and the Day of Kingship. If we would prepare for Rosh Hashana anxiously, fearful of what might be decided for us, we would be expressing lack of trust in a righteous judgment.
However, when we stand in front of our Creator and God, we behave in the opposite way: we cut our hair, wash, wear holiday clothing, and sit down to festive meals. In this way, we express our strong faith and trust in God, whose judgment is righteous and lenient.
This perspective on the Day of Judgment through kingship conveys this in the strongest manner, and the more we believe and anoint the Blessed be He to rule over the world, the more we will merit, with God’s help, to have a good and sweet year, a year of fulfilled wishes, a year of success and joy, a year of health and happiness.
The author is rabbi of the Western Wall and Holy Sites.