The essence of the avodah of Rosh Hashanah is the recognition of Hashem as the Source of Life. That involves much more than just understanding that our existence in this world depends upon His renewing it every moment. It is the recognition that only insofar as we connect to Him do our lives have any coherence and meaning. Removed from Him, our worldly existence is nothing but chayei sha'a (momentary existence) – a series of disconnected moments, each offering an opportunity to tickle our nerve-endings, that are present and then gone. In short, a string of little deaths leading up to the final one.
Our goal is chayei olam (eternal life), where we join ourselves to the Source of Life, represented by an endlessly flowing spring of water. To do so requires viewing ourselves as soul beings, for it is the neshama, the Divine breath within us, through which we remain ever connected to the Divine source.
The central mitzvah of the day – the blowing of the shofar – reminds us that the crucial moment in the creation of Man, on the Sixth Day, Rosh Chodesh Tishrei was when "[G-d] blew into Adam's nostrils the nishmat chayim (the breath of life), and Man became a living being" (Bereishis 2:7). The vigorous exhalation required for the sounds of the shofar recalls that first Divine breath, and reminds us that our essence is the soul breathed into Adam and every subsequent human being; we are spiritual beings.
The sound of the shofar also recalls the unarticulated, pre-speech cry of a baby, first becoming aware of its own existence. The shofar bids us to become aware of our souls.
THE VISION of man as a spiritual being is everywhere under assault today. It is contested by determinists of every stripe, who claim that it is only a matter of time until we can predict what people will do in any given situation based on their neurological makeup.
Princeton University ethicist Peter Singer represents the apogee of advanced thought, when he justifies infanticide on the grounds that a newborn infants has no "rights" and is of less value than a dog, or pig, or chimpanzee.
But the view that Man as nothing but a more intelligent animal, distinguished from the rest of the animal kingdom only by the greater diversity of his pleasures and the intelligence he can employ in satisfying them, is not usually fully articulated. More often it is expressed in behavior that can only be predicated on that view. Celebrity in post-industrial Western culture has become equated with shamelessness. The most shameless are looked up to as idols by young people, for whom celebrity itself is the goal of life. We can see the worship of ba'al pe'or and its offshoots before our eyes.
SUCH VIEWS AND BEHAVIOR do not leave Torah society totally unaffected. We too must continually remind ourselves that our essence lies in the Divine breath within each of us. How can we do that?
The fundamental difference between man and animals lies in our free will, our ability to choose to control our desires, not let them drive us. Animals lack that ability. Their actions are pre-programmed and determined purely by instinct – as in a particular specie of butterfly in which four successive generations fly from the southern hemisphere far into the northern hemisphere and then another four generations complete the journey back. Proponents of the "man as animal" philosophy would like to claim the same for themselves so as to remove any moral culpability from giving in to one's desires.
In order to feel ourselves as soul beings, we must feel ourselves to be choosing beings capable of controlling our behavior, and not determined by some disc planted in our brains.
The more time we devote to cheshbon hanefesh – reflecting upon the choices we make, both good and bad, the more we become aware of our ability to choose. The greater the time devoted to setting goals, as well as plans for achieving those goals, the more we develop the muscles for choice, and thereby empower our Divine intelligence to rule over our earthy urges. Such consideration of the past and planning for the future is the essence of the aseres yamei teshuvah.
The wife of one of the most elevated Jews I have ever met found his personal vidui after his passing, after a long struggle with leukemia. He was not born into an observant family, and found his way to religious observance as a late teen. In his vidui book, he recorded actions he regretted, both prior to becoming religious and afterwards, in a language that fully captures the mindset of one who sees himself as a choosing being, capable of defining himself by the choices he makes.
The enumeration of past sins concluded: "I wanted to do these things. I chose them. Now I don't want them. I'm choosing closeness to G-d; I'm choosing life."
ANIMALS also feel no busha (shame). Shame is a product of the tension between our physical and spiritual aspects. Prior to the Sin, Adam and Chava's bodies were translucent, completely purified by the light of their neshamos. Only after the radical drop in their spiritual level caused by partaking of the forbidden fruit did they become aware for the first time of their nakedness, and of the tension between their physical and spiritual beings.
No animal ever expressed busha over its nakedness precisely because animals do not possess a neshama, and therefore experience no tension between the physical and spiritual.
Developing our sense of busha is another means of heightening our awareness of our neshamos. Asking ourself frequently, "Does my neshama want this or does my body want this" is one way of doing so. The most effective, of course, is continually reminding ourselves wherever we are and whatever we are doing that Hashem is there with us.
SPEECH IS THE UNIQUE HUMAN FACULTY that allows us to take our thoughts, which lack all physical existence, and bring them into the physical world. The Divine breath transformed Man "l'nefesh chaye – into a living being," which Onkelos famously translates as "l'ruach m'mal'la – into a speaking being." That power to join the spiritual to the physical is one of the most wondrous aspects of what it means to be a human being.
Rabbi Yitzchak Hutner points out that the same root in Lashon HaKodesh (פ-ל-א) connotes both something miraculous and an act of speech, as in taking a vow. The transition between the asher yatzar blessing we make in the morning, celebrating the delicate balance and complexity of the human body, and the next blessing, Elokai, neshama . . .," thanking Hashem for the gift of our souls, are the concluding words of asher yatzar – umafli la'asos. Speech is the miraculous power to join the spiritual to the physical.
Care with the purity of our speech is one of the best reminders that our soul is our essence. And, in turn, reflecting on the fact that we are soul beings is one of the best means of purifying our speech, and of avoiding all forms of speech that are unworthy of our exalted status.
FINALLY, we can increase our awareness of the neshama within in by lessening the physical side of our being and making it less importunate. With respect to food, for instance, we have to make sure we are eating to live, not living to eat. I don't wish to sound like Mayor Bloomberg, but too often peering into Shabbos shopping carts, filled with all manner of "goodies" with extremely high calorie to nutrient rations, I'm struck that the later appears to be the case. I can still remember more than thirty years ago, my rosh yeshiva stopping a young avreich who was about to put his third teaspoon of sugar into his tea, with the words, "How much Olam Hazeh do you need?" It turned out to be a good hint even in terms of Olam Hazeh, as that same friend was subsequently forced to adopt a sugar-free diet.
May we all merit to get in touch with our soul beings this Rosh Hashanah and to connect the eternal life planted within us to its Source.
Ksiva ve'Chasima Tova