With Rosh Hashanah upon us, I wanted to explain some of the motifs of the day, but without the heavy ‘machshava’ that we’re accustomed to. Jewish holidays, like pretty much everything else, are designed to be intuitive. We tend to twist things in our search for ‘deeper’ meaning. More than any Sefer Machshavah, the best source for the meaning of Rosh Hashanah is the day’s liturgy, which represents how we’ve related to the day and its themes from time immemorial [note that relating to Rosh Hashana in this way brackets the question of the Biblical ‘Yom Teru’ah’].
Rosh Hashana is a Yom Teru’ah – a day of Shofar blasts. The Shofar was an instrument that served manifold functions – a herald, an alarm, a call to arms. One may ask which of these elements are represented by our Shofar, but that question misses the point; there’s no need to answer that question. The shofar is the shofar with all of its connotations and associations. The teruah is a teruah, with everything that carries. This makes Rosh Hashana very complicated and difficult to conceptualize into a single pattern.
Nevertheless, Chaza”l did attempt variously to see Rosh Hashana in a narrative framework, most notably as pertains to the creation of the world. As has often been noted, Rosh Hashana is seen not as the world’s birthday, but as man’s birthday, or, reading Adam as the archetypical human, Rosh Hashana is humanity’s birthday. Birthdays are ambiguous – they celebrate birth and remind us that we’re closer to death. They allow us to reflect upon past accomplishments but force us to confront what coulda, shoulda, woulda been. They can be happy, or depressing, or a bit of both.
Rosh Hashana is a birthday party writ large. Humanity as a whole takes stock of itself and is scrutinized. To what degree are we carrying out our mission on Earth, our charge from that very first day? To what degree are we close to completing that mission, restoring God’s Earthly Presence? These are hard questions to ask. They force us to relate to our distant past and distant future, both of which are characterized by the fullness of God’s Presence.
The liturgical themes of Rosh Hashana embraces all of history – the distant past, the future, and a present characterized by periodic hierophanies in which God’s Presence recenters our mission. This triad (which corresponds to Takia-Teruah-Tekiah, Malkhiyot-Zichronot-Shofarot, Creation-Revelation-Redemption) recurs on Rosh Hashana. It is a day in which we try to reconnect with our humanity before God, reliving the creation of this strange animal called man, reaccepting Adam’s charge, reevaluating our success and failure of this past year with reference to God’s yardstick, not our own.
Everyone, have a blessed year and a happy birthday to the human in all of us.