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ANSHE EMES -- Rosh Hashonah
A survey of Rosh Hashonoh thoughts from Gedolei Yisroel
compiled by Fred Toczek. 

Dedicated to the memory of Abish ben Naftolin, z’tl 
and Yehudit bas Shimon, z’tl.

by Fred Toczek

Rosh Hashonah, the Jewish New Year, is observed on the first and second days of Tishri.  It is called Yom Hadin, the Day of Judgment, and marks the beginning of the Ten Days of Teshuvah, which culminate in Yom Kippur.  It is a solemn day, a time of self-examination, when we reflect on our past mistakes and deeply regret our offenses against God and the hurts that we have caused others.


A Day of Judgment.  The Talmud (Rosh Hashonah 16b) teaches that three books are opened before G-d on Rosh Hashonah: one for the wholly virtuous, one for total evildoers, and one for those in-between.  The first are  inscribed and sealed in the Book of Life; the second are inscribed and sealed in the Book of Death; the fate of the third is held in the balance between Rosh Hashonah until Yom Kippur -- if they repent and are found worthy, they are inscribed for life; if not and they are found unworthy, they are inscribed for death.  Hilchot Teshuvah teaches that each of us should consider ourselves in the last category.  That is, each of us should consider ourselves (and the entire world) during the entire year as half-meritorious and half-guilty – one sin tips the scale of guilt for ourselves and for the entire world; one mitzvah tips the scale of merit for our ourselves and the entire world.   Incidentally, how can Rosh Hashonah be both a Day of Judgment and a Yom Tov (i.e., a day of celebration)?  While we are being judged, we know that G-d does so with kindness and to give us life; thus, we celebrate. 

A Day On Which God Tests Our Hearts.  As we recite in the Rosh Hashonah liturgy, “give praise to the One Who tests hearts on the Day Of Judgment; to the One Who reveals the depths in judgment.”  As the Siach Sarfei Kodesh teaches, deep inside the heart of every Jew – even the most estranged -- there is a spark of Jewishness that remains pure and perfect; this spark is reawakened and invigorated on Rosh Hashonah.

A Day Of New Beginnings.  Rosh Hashonah, which occurs at the beginning of the month of Tishri, has been a time of new beginnings throughout history.  Among the new beginnings ushered in by Tishri are the following: (a) God created Adam on the first day of Tishri, thus completing the creation of the universe (R’ Eliezer); (b) the Patriarchs were born at Tishri; (c) God remembered Sarah, Rachel and Hannah, who had been childless for many years; (d) Joseph was freed from prison (where he had been confined on false charges), beginning his rise to power in Egypt; and (e) the process of redemption of our ancestors in Egypt began with the end of their bondage and harsh labor.  Additionally, the month of Tishri is in the autumn, a time when the harvest of the previous year has been gathered in and we take stock in order to close the books.

            A Day Of Personal Introspection. The knowledge that God sits in judgment of us on Rosh Hashonah, determining our collective and individual fortunes for the year to come, sobers us to do serious self-searching and reappraise our personal life.  Proof of this is found in the details of the mitzvah of Shofar.  This mitzvah does not prescribe an ensemble of instruments, but only one.  It thus emphasizes that our orientation should be, first and foremost, on improving ourselves, and introducing sanctity into even the ordinary and commonplace of our daily lives.  As Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch wrote, “first become a blessing to yourself so that you may be a blessing to others.”  Additionally, the Shofar is symbolic of prayer/introspection in the purest form – during the entire year, we pray with our physical being (our throat, tongue, teeth and lips); on Rosh Hashonah, we pray with our spiritual essence (our breath). 


The Mussaf Shemonah Esrei (Amidah), contains three special sections which are devoted to the main themes of the day: (a) Malchuyot  (God is King), in which we accept God as our sovereign King and Ruler of the entire universe; (b) Zichronot (God remembers and judges), in which we affirm our belief in Divine Providence, that all of our deeds are remembered by God and that we are rewarded or punished according to our actions (we also ask God to remember Abraham’s supreme self-sacrifice when he bound Isaac on the altar); and (c) Shofarot (the Shofar), in which we relive the Giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai which occurred amidst thunder and lightning and powerful blasts of the Shofar, and we anticipate the final redemption and coming of the Mashiach, (when “the Lord God will blow the Shofar”).  Each of these three sections is composed of an introduction followed by ten scriptural verses that express the central idea of the section: three of these verses are from the Torah, three from the Writings, three from the Prophets, with the concluding verse again from the Torah.  In the Chazzan’s repetition of the Amidah, the Shofar is blown at the end of each of the three sections. 


R’Saadiah Gaon enumerates ten symbolic meanings to the mitzvah of the Shofar:

1.      Rosh Hashanah marks the anniversary of the creation and beginning of God’s sovereignty over Creation.  The Shofar coronates God as King;

2.      The Shofar proclaims the Ten Days of Repentance;

3.      At Mt. Sinai, the Jews shouted “we will do and [then] we will listen” when they accepted the Torah; at that time, the sound of the Shofar continually increased and was very great.  The Shofar thus reminds us of our commitment to “do” and [then] “listen” in the service of G-d;

4.      The Shofar reminds us of the Prophets’ admonitions and calls to repentance;

5.      The Shofar reminds us to pray for the rebuilding of the Holy Temple;

6.      The Shofar, a ram’s horn, reminds us of the Binding of Isaac, and of our obligation to sacrifice our lives in Sanctification of the Holy Name;

7.      The Shofar inspires fear and trembling in our hearts;

8.      The Shofar reminds us of the awesome Judgment Day of the future;

9.      The Shofar reminds us of the long anticipated ingathering of the exiles and arouses an inner yearning in our hearts for that time; and

10.  The Shofar reminds us of (and awakens our belief in and yearning for) the resurrection of the dead.  

            The Lubavitcher Rebbe, z’tl brings down a number of additional beautiful insights into the Shofar, including the following: (a) its sound is compared to that of a child crying out to his/her parent (and, in turn, to our crying out to G-d, our Father); (b) the use of an animal’s horn reminds us that even our most hardened “animal-like” instincts are included in the service of G-d; (c) although many ritual vessels can become “tameh” (ritually impure), the Shofar cannot -- the Shofar is the device with which we express our innate connection with G-d; this connection can be neither severed or sullied; it remains intact and is always ready to be drawn upon; (d) the Shofar preferably has a bend in it, symbolizing our willingness to bend our will to that of G-d; and (e) the mitzvah of the Shofar is only fulfilled when it is blown with the intent of connecting to G-dliness; the same is true of all mitzvos – they are not simply tasks to be blindly carried out, but rather are spiritual tools to connect with G-d in a meaningful way.


            The apple and honey represents our wishes for a sweet year for ourselves, our families and the entire Jewish people.  They also symbolize the following: (a) on most fruit trees, the leaves appear first to provide a protective cover for the young fruit.  The apple, however, appears before its leaves.  We are like an apple because we are willing to live out our Jewish lives even if it seems to leave us unprotected; (b) a bee can inflict pain by its sting yet also produces delicious honey; life has the same duality of potential; and  (c) it focuses on the duality of a “good” and “sweet” year.  Everything that happens is for the good since it is part of Divine Will. Thus, even things that look “bad” in our eyes are actually “good”.  So, we ask God that the year be “sweet” (in addition to “good”) because we know that everything will be for the good, but we also ask that it be a “revealed” good (i.e., one that tastes “sweet” to us).  


            The First Day.  The Torah reading begins with Sarah’s conception of Isaac and his ensuing birth.  The Haftorah recounts how the childless Hannah was blessed with a son.  According to the Talmud, both Sarah and Hannah conceived on Rosh Hashonah.  These readings remind us of Hashem’s mercy, and that sincere prayer and repentance can bring about Divine compassion that overcomes all adversity. 

            The Second Day.  The Torah reading recounts the Akeidas Yitzchak (binding of Isaac), which recalls the sacrifices Abraham and Isaac were ready to make for God, and the additional merit to us on this day of judgment.  (It also describes Abraham’s substituting the ram for Isaac, which is one of the reasons we blow the Shofar).  The Haftorah is from Jeremiah and ends with the famous verse “is Ephraim (Israel) My Dear Son or Delightful Child, that whenever I speak of him I should remember him? Therefore, My inner Self yearns for him, and I shall surely take pity on him, says the Lord.”  God is, in effect, saying that after all of  Ephraim’s sins he does not really deserve God’s compassion; yet, God was moved by his pleas and had mercy on him.  It also contains God’s promise to Jeremiah that the Jewish people will be redeemed, and the very moving passage of Rachael weeping for her children’s salvation.    


            A prince built a tree-house in his father’s orchard.  He failed to care for the tree and allowed vines and thorn branches to grow around it.  Soon, it was impossible to approach the tree.  Fortunately, the royal gardener inspected the orchard once a year and repaired all damage.  With his tools, he cleared the vines and branches and the tree was free to breathe and grow again.  On Rosh Hashonah, G-d releases each of us from “prison” and renews our lives.  On this day, we too have the opportunity to free ourselves from our obstacles and renew our lives.

  There is a famous story about an elderly sage named Reb Zusia.  As he laid on his deathbed surrounded by his disciples and wept, they implored, “you were almost as wise as Moses himself”,  “You were almost as kind as our father Abraham” and so on.  Yet, Reb Zusia would not be comforted.  When I pass from this world and appear before the Heavenly tribunal, he said, “they won’t ask me, ‘why weren’t you as wise as Moses or as kind as Abraham;,’ rather they will ask me ‘why weren’t you Zusia!’ Why didn’t I fulfill my potential, why didn’t I follow the path that could have been mine.”  On Rosh Hashonah, we confront our potential.


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