Rosh Hashanah: The year when hope is fulfilled

We must admit that the unknown is far greater than the known.

Blowing shofar in Jerusalem's Nahlaot neighborhood (photo credit: HADAS PARUSH/FLASH90)
Blowing shofar in Jerusalem's Nahlaot neighborhood
(photo credit: HADAS PARUSH/FLASH90)
Rosh Hashanah is the first day of the New Year of the Jewish calendar. That day and the following day are holidays on which Jews everywhere celebrate the beginning of the year. But the manner of this particular Jewish celebration is very unique. The holiday’s main ceremony is actually shofar blowing.
On the morning of the holiday, usually in the synagogue and in the midst of the prayer service, the shofar is blown a measured number of blasts. Is this how Jews celebrate the beginning of the year? What does shofar blowing express, and how is it related to Rosh Hashanah?
When we study the sources and customs of the holiday, we notice the special emphasis placed on the topic of kingship. On Rosh Hashanah we declare God’s kingship in the world.
Kingship is not about control. God’s control of the world is absolute and does not necessitate man’s declarations. Kingship entails a certain relationship between a king and his subjects. If the subjects do not accept the king’s status and what it implies, there is no kingship. God is king of the universe because we, human beings, accept His kingship and declare it.
What are we busy with on Rosh Hashanah? With examining the significance of God’s kingship in the world and with anointing Him. Blowing the shofar is the high point when we stand and express through the shofar blasts that we recognize God’s kingship and our choice to be His subjects.
Rosh Hashanah is considered the Day of Judgment when God decrees what kind of year each person will have. Will we merit health for the upcoming year? A good livelihood? Satisfaction? Happiness? All these questions are open and we must admit that the unknown is far greater than the known.
On Rosh Hashanah, the Talmud teaches us, “All the inhabitants of the world pass before the Almighty.” Every person gets his own personal examination in which it is determined what his fate will be during the upcoming year.
The connection between these two aspects of the holiday – the declaration of God’s kingship and Rosh Hashanah also being judgment day – is expressed in the words of the Midrash:
“In the moment when the Blessed be He sits on the throne of judgment... God ascends with acclimation, at a time when Israel takes their shofarot and sounds them before the Blessed be He. God stands up from the throne of judgment and sits on the throne of mercy... and God has mercy on them and switches their treatment from the attribute of judgment to the attribute of mercy” (Leviticus Rabbah 29, 3).
This midrashic description connects the shofar blowing with judgment. Through the shofar blasts we succeed in switching judgment to mercy. Is this a segula, some remedy or protection? Is it magic? Not at all.
When we declare at the beginning of the New Year that we accept God’s kingship, and we express this by blowing the shofar, we become God’s emissaries. We take upon ourselves the Jewish purpose of “repairing the world under the kingdom of God.”
God’s kingship is not a spiritual concept disconnected from reality. In the world that God rules, life looks different, relationships among people are different, holiness prevails, and pettiness must disappear.
Accepting God’s kingship is accepting a mission. We members of the Jewish nation carry an important message to all of humanity. The more we internalize the Jewish message embodied by the Torah and its commandments and express kiddush Hashem, sanctifying God’s name with our actions, the better we carry out our mission.
Judaism’s message in a nutshell is: Repairing the world under the kingdom of God. The significance of this message is important since Judaism is positioned between two opposites, between nihilism and hedonism, and between spirituality that calls for abstinence and human society.
Judaism differs from both these extremes and speaks of a life of holiness within human society, of morality that does not erase the person but establishes relationships between one person and another. The kingship of God does not contradict the world and the world does not contradict the kingship of God. Judaism’s expectation is that reality, as it is, will adjust to the spiritual values of holiness and morality.
As the New Year approaches, we declare our faith that the kingship of God can be actualized in reality, and we declare our willingness to act so that this hope is fulfilled. We call this fulfillment, in its entirety, geula, redemption.
Shana tova to the entire Jewish nation! Shana tova to the entire world!
The writer is rabbi of the Western Wall and Holy Sites.