Rosh Hashana is not, as many think, the day of the creation of the universe.
Rather, it is the day of Man’s creation – the Sixth Day. The Torah describes the
creation of Man as a literal act of Divine inspiration: “And [God] blew into his
nostrils the soul of life, and Man became a living being” (Genesis
The sounds of the shofar, produced by vigorous exhalation, recall
that ﬁrst Divine breath. Thus the central mitzva of Rosh Hashana – the blowing
of the shofar – reminds us that our essence is the soul breathed into Adam and
every subsequent human being by God, and that we are spiritual
That original breath is not thereafter cut off from its Divine
source. Rather, we remain continually connected to God through our souls, just
as the glassblower remains connected to the air he has exhaled, in Rabbi Chaim
of Volozhin’s classic metaphor.
Onkeles’s Aramaic translation of “a
living being,” in the above-quoted verse describing Adam’s creation, is “ruah
memalila” – a speaking being. Speech is the uniquely human capacity to bring
thoughts – which have no physical existence – into the physical world. That
ability to join the physical and spiritual through speech is miraculous. Not by
accident is the Hebrew root for something wondrous, peleh, the same as that of
the word the Torah employs for taking a vow, yaﬂi, an act of speech.
arising in the morning and going to the bathroom, a Jew recites a blessing
enumerating the complex functioning and delicate balance of the human body. That
blessing concludes, “Blessed are You, Hashem, Who heals all ﬂesh and acts
wondrously [maﬂi la’asot].” Immediately afterward, we recite a blessing thanking
God for the gift of our souls: “My God, the soul you placed within me is pure.
You created it.
You fashioned it. You breathed it into me. You safeguard
it within me, and eventually You will take it from me, and restore it to me in
the Time to Come.”
Thus the words “maﬂi la’asot,” which connote both the
power of speech and something wondrous, serve as the bridge between our bodies
and our souls. Remembrance of that ﬁrst breath of life, then, is remembrance of
the miracle of Man’s combination of the physical and spiritual.
VISION of man as a spiritual being is under assault today. Juxtaposed with it is
the view of Man as nothing but a more sophisticated animal – different only in
the multiplicity of his pleasures and the greater intelligence he can employ to
satisfy those pleasures.
Sometimes the latter view is expressed
explicitly, as in the work of Princeton University “ethicist” Peter Singer, who
ﬁnds nothing objectionable about bestiality and writes that the “life of a
newborn [baby] is of less value than the life of a pig, or dog, or
But more often the view is expressed implicitly. Human
beings are distinguished by their capacity for shame.
That shame results
from awareness of the contrast between our physicality and our status as a
spiritual beings: Only after Chava and Adam ate of the forbidden fruit and
declined from an almost pure spiritual level did they become aware of their
nakedness and become embarrassed on its account. But where all awareness of the
spiritual side of one’s nature has been lost, so, too, has all capacity for
embarrassment. The equation of celebrity and shamelessness, and the
ever-diminishing sense of a private realm that is not on view to the world, are
but two the most ﬂagrant contemporary manifestations.
The battle between
these two competing visions of Man goes back to the very beginning of human
history. The Snake’s opening statement to Chava can be read not as a question
(as it is usually translated) but as a statement: “Even if Elokim said don’t eat
of any tree of the garden, [so what]? His message was: Be like the animals, who
are acting in accord with His will when they follow their instincts.
should you not similarly act upon your desire for the fruit?” As Rabbi David
Fohrman points out in The Beast that Crouches at the Door, the temptation of
Chava follows a seeming digression in the Torah text: Adam’s naming of all the
creatures and his inability to ﬁnd among them a partner for himself. That
account should have preceded the creation of Chava, not followed it. But its
placement just prior to Chava’s temptation hints at the Snake’s motivation: He
wanted to contest Adam’s removal of himself from the animal kingdom, and claim
Chava for himself.
Eventually the Snake’s argument prevailed, and the
distinction between human beings and animals was lost. The generation of the
Flood adopted the ideology of Man as a more intelligent animal, and began mating
Only after the Flood did God grant Man permission to eat
animal ﬂesh, in order to stress the absolute chasm between human beings and
A DAY of judgment makes sense only if one views Man as a being
who possesses an element of the Divine, and who, unlike the animals, possesses
free will that empowers him to shape and give meaning to his life by the choices
For if we were truly determined by our desires and driven by
our instincts, which we are incapable of resisting, there would be no basis for
The goal of Rosh Hashana is to recognize God as the Source of
Life, of meaning and purpose. And that requires heightening our awareness of the
Divine soul He breathed into us, and by virtue of which we remain joined to Him.
That is what we mean when we offer thanks for the “eternal life that You planted
in us” – i.e., that exists within us now. Only the awareness that we are bound
to the Source of Life, that we have the power to choose to strengthen that
connection or to cut it off, offers the possibility of a life of coherence and
Where that awareness is absent, life becomes nothing but a
series of disconnected moments, a string of opportunities to tickle the nerve
endings in one way or another. Each moment passes and dies – the opportunity was
either taken or passed up, but in either case it is now gone. Life becomes a
series of small deaths leading up to the ﬁnal one.
RABBI NOACH WEINBERG,
the founder of Aish Hatorah (about whom I am currently writing a biography) used
to tell a remarkable story about how one Jew became aware of his
Avraham Cordish, zt”l, was a PhD.
student at the University
of Michigan, when he was shot in the back by a mugger and left a quadriplegic.
When he realized that he would never walk or move freely again, he asked himself
a question: What was the purpose of all my running about until now? Then it
occurred to him that had he not been shot, he would never have asked himself
that question, or if he had thought about it at all, he would never have pursued
the answer to the ﬁnish. He was too busy running after various short-term goals.
(He had been an all-American soccer player at Johns Hopkins University and a
star lacrosse player, as well an outstanding student.) The next question he
asked himself reveals the depth of his soul: What is worse – to be unable to run
or even walk, or not to know the purpose of one’s life? He concluded that the
latter would be a far worse fate.
And then he realized that had he not
been shot, that would have been his fate.
When he viewed it that way, he
had to be grateful for the tragedy that had radically changed his life and every
After two years of grueling and painful rehabilitation,
Cordish succeeded in immigrating to Israel, where he married and lived for 34
years in Jerusalem’s Bayit Vegan neighborhood and served as a source of
inspiration for all who knew him.
May we all merit to get in touch our
soul beings this Rosh Hashana and to connect to the eternal life planted within
The writer is director of Jewish Media Resources, has written a regular
column in The Jerusalem Post Magazine since 1997, and is the author of eight
biographies of modern Jewish leaders.