HONEY POURS from a spoon. The delicious sweet is a traditional Rosh HaShanah treat.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
At sunset this Sunday, we will stand at the cusp of a new year.
We will celebrate the beginning of the year with two days of Rosh Hashana.
Ancient Jewish tradition views Rosh Hashana as a very special day. This is not just the beginning of the year, but the “rosh” – the head – of the year. Meaning, it is the most central and important day of the year. It is from this day that commands are sent to the other days of the year, and as our sages have said: “From the start of the year, its end is determined.”
Other than the beloved traditions of Rosh Hashana, such as eating sweet foods in hopes of a good and sweet year, the central commandment of the holiday is the blowing of the shofar.
As we read in the Torah: “It shall be a day of shofar sounding for you” (Numbers 29:1). This commandment to blow the shofar has been the focus of many commentaries and explanations, and we will focus on a midrash that offers an interesting and unique explanation for this special mitzvah.
Our sages said: “Rabbi Yehoshua of Sachnin said in the name of Rabbi Levi: On Rosh Hashana Jews take their shofars and blow them before the Blessed Be He, and He gets up from the chair of judgment and goes to the chair of mercy and is filled with mercy for them” (Vayikra Raba, 29).
Before explaining the words of the midrash, we must focus on an important point. When the Bible or our sages express themselves in this manner, they do not mean to say that God literally sits on a chair or gets up from one. As the Rambam explained, such expressions are merely symbolic; the “chair” mentioned in the above quotation is a symbol for greatness and loftiness.
So what do the sages mean by saying that because of the shofar, God goes from the chair of judgment to the chair of mercy? In fact, we must ask: if ultimately God treats us with compassion, why is the state of judgment the default position? In order to comprehend these profound ideas, we must understand the significance of shofar blowing. What does shofar-blowing represent, that it stands at the center of a day as important as Rosh Hashana? This shofar-blowing that we perform on Rosh Hashana is an expression of anointing a king. Exactly as in a festive coronation ceremony a guard of honor blows trumpets, so we on Rosh Hashana anoint God as our king, meaning we express complete faith in Him, and in His love and concern for us. We stand before God at the beginning of the year and express complete confidence that in the coming year He will worry about all our needs with infinite love, love that only God can provide.
This, in short, is the central meaning of shofar-blowing on Rosh Hashana.
Now we must try to see how this has the power to change God’s treatment of the world. The answer to this question seems obvious: when we express faith in God we create an attitude that is not based on the belittlement of man, but on the contrary gives tremendous value to man, value that is immeasurable. In order to understand this value and its content, we will look at the terms “judgment” and “mercy.”
The judgment we are talking about regards a specific role. It is demanded of us that we fulfill it, and we do. We must not minimize the significance of a role. In many ways, the role, the goal and the orientation, are those that provide man with a sense of worth.
But all this is true only when we look at man in the realm of judgment.
To look at a man through the prism of mercy means not examining him based on his roles and their implementation, but as a man, as a lofty creature, one whose inherent value is beyond discernment or measure.
We recognize him as a man, who even if he does not fulfill every role and even if he does not have a goal, is of infinite value simply due to his being human.
When we create a relationship of trust with God, a relationship of king-making, we merit a different perspective; a view of “mercy” that does not judge us based on our deeds, but sees us as humans, as creatures with limitless value who are not measured by filling a specific role or implementing it.
We create this view. We, not God, decide how God will see the world.
Therefore God initially sits on the chair of judgment, and when we blow the shofar and anoint Him as king, and express faith in Him, the attitude changes and He moves to the chair of mercy.
We have the power to change the Divine view of humanity and of the entire world, and to bestow upon ourselves a good and sweet year, filled with light and love, with grace and mercy, a year of fulfilled wishes, a year of success and joy, health and happiness.The author is rabbi of the Western Wall and Holy Sites.