Parasha picture of old man 521.
(photo credit: Israel Weiss)
Rosh Hashana is the Day of Judgment, the day when the Jewish people, along with
all humanity, are judged by God.
From that perspective, it is a day of
awe and fear and trembling.
Indeed, the Bible refers to it as a “Day of
Trua” (Numbers 29:1), which is the broken, staccato sound of the shofar, which
the Talmud identifies either as “sighs” or “wailing sobs.”
At the same
time, it is also a day of rejoicing – a day on which it is prohibited to mourn,
a day on which one must celebrate with wine and meat and rejoicing of the heart.
The very term shofar, or ram’s horn, means “beautiful” because the horns of the
ram are its mark of beauty.
And there is another sound made by the
shofar, the tekiya, an exultant sound of victory. Let us analyze these two
different aspects of Rosh Hashana; the angst of the trua and the victory of the
tekiya are somehow bound up with the day of the creation of the world.
will begin with trua, which is reminiscent of the gasping cries of an infant
when first brought into the world; a world in which the human being is free to
do that which God would not want him to do. The price of God’s having created us
with freedom of choice is that there is room for evil as well as for good in the
world. There is chaos as well as order, war as well as peace, suffering as well
as rejoicing, and tsunamis and earthquakes as well as the comforting rhythm of
sunrise and sunset. This world seems a vale of tears, a circumscribed period in
which fragile individuals are buffeted by forces beyond their control,
struggling against an unfeeling and capricious nature both without and within,
and eventually succumbing to illness and death.
The central prayer during
our “Days of Awe,” Unetaneh tokef, offers another perspective: “Let us voice the
power of this day’s sanctity which is awesome and frightening, on this day Your
kingship will be exalted and Your throne shall be established with
loving-kindness; upon it shall You sit in truth. It is true that You are judge
and chastiser, the Knowing One and Witness, Who writes and seals, counts and
numbers, remembering all forgotten things. You open the Book of Remembrances,
from it everything is read out and every person’s name is signed there....
Behold here is the Day of Judgment.... No one will have merit in Your eyes in
All the people of the world will pass before you like
sheep.... You will fix a limit to the life of every creature and inscribe your
decree of judgment.”
This is clearly a universal prayer referring to each
and every human being. It describes how everyone is limited and mortal, and how
Rosh Hashana is the day on which the fate of every individual is determined:
“who will live and who will die, who by fire and who by water, who by sword and
who by wild beast, who shall be lowered and who shall be raised.”
since all of us are mortal and bound to sin, “no one will have merit in Your
eyes in judgment,” no one will escape the ultimate destiny of death.
real challenge is how to face this difficult aspect of life. The prayer cites
the Mishna (B.T. Rosh Hashana 18a) that “everyone passes before You” kivnei
maron, an ambiguous, difficult metaphor to which the Talmud provides three
possible interpretations, or ways of responding to life’s existential
The first is “like sheep”: the head of one facing the tail of
the other, eyes downcast, hearts frightened.
The second, suggested by
Resh Lakish, is “like attempting to reach the place Beit Maron,” to which there
was an ascent so narrow that a false move could plunge the hapless climber into
the deep valley on either side: “The entire world is a narrow bridge,”
encouraging one to move with caution and forethought, but not to be
The third perspective, offered by Rav Yehuda, is “like the
soldiers of King David,” the elite, determined and courageous troops of the
leader of Israel who brought us into the golden age of our history, the model
for the Messianic Age: Life is a battle, but everyone can and must do their
share to bring about the ultimate victory of a more perfect society and a
As the prayer concludes, “Repentance, prayer and
compassionate righteousness will remove the bitterness, the biting sting, of the
difficult decree of human mortality.”
At the very least, the limited
nature of our sojourn in this fleeting life should spur us on to make the most
of the time we have, appreciate the joys and maximize every opportunity to make
improvements – in ourselves and in society – and to do everything in our power
to link ourselves to the eternity of our nation and to the God who guarantees
ultimate redemption and the victory of good over evil.
The writer is the
founder and chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone Colleges and Graduate Programs and
chief rabbi of Efrat.