Rosh Hashana begins the most intense period of the Jewish calendar. The day is one of fear and trembling. At least we hope it is.
Because without that fear and trembling, there can be none of the joy of the New Year either. "Happy is the nation that knows the secret of the teru'a [shofar blasts]," proclaims the Midrash. The nation that knows how to tremble at the sound of the shofar and to submit itself to judgment is happy.
The staccato teru'a blasts remind us of something being shattered. That which is being shattered is ourselves - all the ingrained patterns of our past - so that we can begin anew. Breaking free of the shackles of the past occasions joy.
No day is so imbued with potential for growth as Rosh Hashana. The Divine judgment of the day determines our spiritual potential for the coming year. Just as the full grown tree is encapsulated in a single seed, so our potential for growth in the coming year is contained in the judgment of Rosh Hashana (though much can still take place that will affect the actual growth.) Though Rosh Hashana is actually the sixth day of creation, it is referred to as the first day: "The first of your great acts, a remembrance of the first day." On the sixth day, Adam was created.
Everything that went before was only a prelude to his creation. Man alone gives purpose to the creation by recognizing his creator and entering into a relationship with him. And just as the first man was created on Rosh Hashana, so too do we have the ability to recreate ourselves on this day.
Rosh Hashana looks to the future, not to the past. The judgment of the day is not on our past sins, which are not even mentioned in our prayers. Thus the judgment takes place on the first day of the new year, not the last day of the previous year.
Before we can conceive a future different from the past - which is the promise of Rosh Hashana - there is no hope of removing the taint of our past failures. Rosh Hashana has thus been likened to the removing of our soiled garments and Yom Kippur to the cleaning of those garments. Until I remove those garments, until I can conceive of myself apart from my past actions, I am not yet in a position to deal with the effect of those actions.
As long as I'm still wearing my soiled garments, I cannot even see how filthy they have become or begin to think of those garments as something apart from myself and capable of being washed at all. The first day's Torah reading describes Ishmael's expulsion from Abraham's house and how "God heeded the cry of the youth as he was at that moment." The Midrash relates that the angels tried to convince God not to spare him, for in the future his descendants would cause Jews to die of thirst. But God replied, "At this moment he is righteous," and judged him accordingly.
Similarly, our judgment on Rosh Hashana is determined by who we are at precisely this moment. The assignment of our task for the coming year, which is the essence of the judgment of Rosh Hashana, is determined by what we truly desire to be at that moment. Determining who we are at this moment requires us to take a searching look at ourselves.
Who am I? What is important to me? What is my purpose in life? - these are questions of Rosh Hashana. Answering those questions is not a simple matter of telling God that we want to be good boys and girls. There is no fooling Him.
On Pessah the world is judged regarding grain, and we bring a barley offering; on Shavuot the world is judged regarding the fruits, and we bring an offering of the first fruits; and on Succot the world is judged regarding water, and we pour a water libation on the altar. On Rosh Hashana, man is judged. But what sacrifice does he bring? He brings himself.
And just as a sacrifice must be examined for blemishes four days prior to being offered, so there must be at least four days of penitential prayers prior to Rosh Hashana. We must examine ourselves. While the Mishna describes the particular judgment of Pessah, Shavuot, and Succot, it does not explicitly say that man is judged on Rosh Hashana.
Rather the Mishna tells us that on Rosh Hashana "all who come into the world pass in front of Him bnei meron." The Talmud uses three metaphors to elucidate the puzzling phrase "bnei meron": (l) like those passing in a narrow place where there is room for only one at a time; (2) like the soldiers of King David, who received their orders individually before going into battle; (3) like sheep passing under the rod of their shepherd as he counts them. All these metaphors have in common one idea: The judgment is on the individual in absolute isolation, stripped of all social context. In that respect, the judgment resembles that on the day of death, where the judgment is also on the individual in his absolute solitude.
And how will we answer when we stand alone before God, and He asks: "Who are you?" If we look closely, we may find that there is nothing there - no "I," no individuality, nothing apart from our connection to others. What distinguishes me from my neighbor? He wants this and that, and so do I. The only difference is that he wants it for himself and I want it for myself.
When we seek out the core that constitutes our irreducible self, we find ourselves in the situation so poignantly described in a confessional prayer traditionally recited on Rosh Hashana Eve: "If You seek to clean me, as one who refines and purifies silver [in the fire], nothing will remain of me." But for a Jew something always remains. "I slumber, but my heart is awake" (Song of Songs 5:2). Our Sages tell us that "my heart" refers to God, Who is the heart of Klal Yisrael.
In every Jew there always remains a point that is untainted and incapable of being untainted. Our task on Rosh Hashana is to attach our entire existence to that which is eternal within us. It is to recognize that the life and death to which we refer on Rosh Hashana have nothing to do with whether we are breathing or not.
In the words of the Sages, "The wicked are called dead even while they live, and the righteous are called living even in death." To experience real life is to experience a connection to the source of life, to God, whose is called a God of life. Life, as applied to God, Maimonides makes clear, refers not to an attribute of God but to His essence. He defines life.
Only that which is connected to Him is alive, for only it has eternity. Everything else is evanescent, fleeting, doomed to "vanish like smoke." Thus the ultimate question we address to ourselves on Rosh Hashana is: Do I seek to be joined to the wellspring of existence or is my desire for that which passes like a cloud? Do I seek life or its opposite? The answer to that question determines whether I will be granted the tools in the coming year to fulfill the unique role for which I was destined. The cry of the shofar is at once a cry from the depths of the heart, of the "I" struggling to become aware of itself, and a blast intended to arouse that "I." It is the primordial sound, a sound that conveys more than words can.
The sound of the shofar precedes language; it precedes the words with which the snake deceived Eve, the words with which we continue to deceive ourselves and others. It bypasses the realm of thought and pierces the deepest recesses of the heart. The shofar heralds judgment and thereby frightens us: "Can the shofar be sounded in the city and the people not tremble?" (Amos 3:6).
Yet it is we who summon ourselves to judgment by blowing the shofar. In so doing, we demonstrate that we accept the need for judgment, the need for having our attention riveted on the quest for our essential selves. We show God that we recognize the need for change, for re-creation of ourselves.
And by so doing, we arouse His mercy; we cause Him to move, as the Midrash says, from the throne of strict judgment to the throne of mercy. "Happy is the nation that knows the secret of teru'a." May we all be inscribed for the coming year in the Book of Life.