This week, hundreds of thousands of Jews will celebrate the holiday of Rosh Hashanah, the day we celebrate the Jewish New Year. For most people, Rosh Hashanah brings up images of old men in Taleisim (prayer shawls) crying their eyes out, a long, long davening in shul, and this eternal dread of God striking you down with a lightning bolt if you don’t repent immediately. Wow, what a depressing way to bring in the New Year. These images bring up a number of questions. First of all, why are we crying and repenting on Rosh Hashanah, isn’t that what we do on Yom Kippur? Secondly, why on the day we celebrate the New Year, which is a time to thank God for getting us through the previous one, do we cry for two whole days?
These misconceptions are exactly that, misconceptions. Someone who comes into the holiday with this mindset is missing the beauty of the whole day! The real question we should be asking is what is Rosh Hashanah? What is special about it? Why do some people cry? And why do we spend so much time in shul? Let us try to understand what the purpose of Rosh Hashanah is.
Rosh Hashanah is the anniversary of the creation of the world. On this day, Hashem became king over all that exists. In other words, Rosh Hashanah is the coronation of Hashem as king of the world. In the time of kings, what were coronations like? These were the happiest days of the year! Everyone was so excited for the new king. There would be massive parties for days, everyone would come pay their respects and the entire kingdom was filled with the spirit of change and new times. The next year on the anniversary of the king’s coronation, they would celebrate again with parties, would sing the king’s praises, and everyone was happy remembering the celebrations of previous years up to the time of the original celebration of the king’s inauguration. We too on Rosh Hashanah must feel this happiness. Hashem became king over this world 5771 years ago this Rosh Hashanah. We must feel this excitement as we would for a human king’s anniversary. So really Rosh Hashanah is a happy day and we treat it as such. For this reason, we have normal Yom Tov seudahs (meals), dress in our finest clothes, and eat all the new fruits. We are celebrating the renewal of the world!
So what is the serious side to Rosh Hashanah? During every one of these anniversary celebrations for the king, there was a special time set aside for the king to meet with the people of the country individually or in groups representing a village. This was the people’s chance to make any request they wanted of the king. This person needed his taxes lowered in order to survive, this village needed more access to the river neighboring another village for their crops, and others like these. The king then made his decision based on the facts in front of him. Had this farmer paid his taxes fully in the past that now he should get a break? Hadn’t this village been taking water from the river already without permission? The king was also trusted that whether this person was deserving or not, if for whatever reason it was or wasn’t good for him to have his request granted, the king knew what was best for him and the person did not question his decision.
Can you imagine a simple peasant having the opportunity to meet the king? It must have been an unbelievable experience! Here is this simple farmer getting to meet the person he has served all his life, and only had the opportunity to hear about! It probably took all his self-control not to break down right there in front of the king. Or, if the farmer was not loyal, here is the man who they always said would punish him for doing bad and he never believed in, sitting right in front of him! Can you imagine the fear this person must have felt? Whether from happiness, fear, or sadness, it is not hard to imagine the emotions that must have been going through this person.
We are the same way on Rosh Hashanah. This is the beginning of ten days where the king is around us more than ever. On the day of Hashem’s inauguration, he gives us a private audience to voice our requests and show him how we have behaved over the year. On this day we can ask for anything we want to help us in the next year and we trust in Hashem that if what we want is not good for us, it is better that we do not receive it. Now, a person who knows he has sinned might be embarrassed to ask for anything he wants. He thinks, how can he ask for something when he has done all these bad things over the past year! In that case, pray that Hashem should help you do the right things, and daven for the things which will help you accomplish your goals.
Now we can understand why a person cries on Rosh Hashanah. You are given a private audience with the king of the world to honor him and to ask him for whatever you want! A person can easily be overcome and just burst out crying. And since we don’t even know whether we have been good or bad throughout the year, our fear should be even greater! The Gemarah says that a person does not sin unless a spirit of foolishness comes over him. Why? Because if you believe that Hashem runs the world and gives everything we need to survive including every last breath we breathe, how could you possibly sin! Rather, a person is overcome for a second with a foolish thought and that’s how it happens. If a person can actually picture Hashem in front of him, and he knows that he sinned, it makes sense that he bursts out crying.
There is another way to think about this king parable. Imagine if your father became the king. You would be so filled with happiness for him that you would lead all the praises and parties for the entire time. So too us on Rosh Hashanah, we feel happy that Hashem is king over us since he is our father. As we daven on Rosh Hashanah, “אבינו מלכנו” “Our father, our king”.
There is one more reason to celebrate Rosh Hashanah. The first of Tishrei, the date of Rosh Hashanah, is the anniversary of the sixth day of creation, the day that man was created. Why don’t we celebrate the first day of creation, when God began creating the world he is king of? Or why not the second, third, or fourth day, when He created the earth and animals he is king over? Why is Rosh Hashanah, the day where every person, plant, animal, and mineral is judged, celebrated on the day of the creation of man? The answer is that we are not the only people celebrating Rosh Hashanah. Hashem also celebrates with us. What is he celebrating? Our creation! We, the beings who take these days to acknowledge his greatness and dominion over the world, who make this world worth creating through our Torah and mitzvos, Hashem is celebrating us! Now, how can we not join in too! Every prayer that we pray, every thanks that we give over these two days in honor of Hashem goes right back on us. When we show Hashem that we care about him and praise him, he is looking right back at us and saying, ‘look at my creations! Look at the Jewish people! The entire creation was worth it just for them.’
Rosh Hashanah is an opportunity for us to commit to new goals for the coming year even if we have behaved badly over the past year. (This is NOT a day of forgiveness, that is Yom Kippur) This process ends on Yom Kippur. (However, since Rosh Hashanah is the first day of a ten day period (known as the Aseres Yimei Teshuvah- The Ten Days of Repentance) which Hashem is waiting for our teshuvah and anxious to see us return, we begin thinking about teshuvah on Rosh Hashanah itself.) Over the days of Rosh Hashanah and the week afterwards culminating in Yom Kippur, we must ask ourselves, what we want to do with our lives and what are we prepared to do to achieve our goals. The first step in that is to acknowledge that Hashem is the one way you can turn for help to accomplish all you want to accomplish. After we accomplish that on Rosh Hashanah, we will be more than ready for the Aseres Yimei Teshuvah and Yom Kippur. Maybe then we will be zoche (will merit) to be called by the great title of Ba’al Teshuvah.
May we all merit a K’siva VaChasima Tovah and a healthy and happy year.