Digging deeper into Rosh Hashanah

So how should I feel on Rosh Hashanah? Should I be happy, somber, terrified, relaxed, or anxious? The answer of course is yes, all of the above. Some emotional turmoil may very well be a crucial part of experiencing Rosh Hashanah.

If this is the case, what is the point of this holiday? The liturgy in the machzor, the prayer book, is very long. There are many themes that are interwoven resulting in that it is sometimes hard to tell at first glance, what is the point, unless you dig deeper and explore. Many are familiar with the Unetanah Tokef prayer: the words of "Who shall live and who shall die" stand out and force us to contemplate these big questions and maybe even question if we really believe God operates this way. 

Are our lives really determined on Rosh Hashanah? Others may focus on the Torah reading of Akedat Yitzhak, the binding of Isaac, and shudder at what God could ultimately demand from us. Some may dare suggest that Abraham should not have listened to God and refused to bring Isaac to the altar. Others may think of apples and honey and sweetness and see this as the definitive theme of the day.

So what is the point of the day?

Our sages understood the complex nature of Rosh Hashanah. One passage (Babylonian Talmud Rosh Hashanah 32b) portrays ministering angels asking God: 

Why does not Israel say Hallel (the liturgy of psalms of praise recited on other Jewish festivals) before you on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur? God said to them: Is it possible that while God sits on his throne of judgment, with the books of the living and the dead open before Him, Israel should sing praise?

This text highlights fearful/trembling aspect of the day with which we associate the Unetaneh Tokef prayer. Normally, Jewish holidays like Passover, Shavuot, and Sukkot are infused with joy and this is expressed through the liturgy with Hallel. However, we do not recite Hallel on Rosh Hashanah because we cannot be joyous. We are overwhelmed with the reality of being finite beings standing on the narrow ridge between life and death. This is not the time for praise. This is the time for deep inner inspection, fear and trembling, and perhaps tears of anguish.

However, this is not the whole story, for we have another passage from the Talmud (Talmud Yerushalmi Rosh Hashanah) that says the following: R. Hama b. R. Hanina and R. Hoshayya-one said, "Is there a nation like this nation?  Ordinarily someone who knows he is on trial wears black and wraps himself in black and lets his beard grow, since he does not know how his trial will turn out. But that is not how it is with Israel. Rather, on the day of their trial they wear white and wrap themselves in white and shave their beards and eat, drink, and rejoice, for they know that the Holy One blessed be he does miracles for them."

This text preserves the judgment theme, but rather than fear and trembling, the response is rejoicing and celebration. Think of apples and honey, brisket, seitan, and other foods we share at festive Rosh Hashanah meals. Yes, we are being judged, but we are confident that God's compassion will override strict judgment. Perhaps even the fact we are judged should be a source of celebration, for after all, it means that what we do is important, our actions and deeds count, and each of us is significant. 

This being the case, I think we should comfortably embrace both these texts and the almost contradictory moods. At this time of the year, when reflection on one's life is central, these different moods remind us of the fleeting nature of life, of moments of joy and moments of sadness, of the inevitability of change, and the importance of responsibility of our deeds.

According to Hasidic sources, when we ask God to remember us for life, it is not life or death as we typically understand it. Rather, we are praying for spiritual life, a life infused with meaning and purpose. In the end, we cannot control, best as we may try, life or death. What we can determine is the meaning and purpose of our lives. To achieve this requires our acknowledgment that we are only here for a limited time and that there is anxiety that accompanies it. But we can also use our time to infuse our lives with purpose is cause for rejoicing. It is ultimately us who choose life or death.  

Rabbi Michael Balinsky is executive vice president of the Chicago Board of Rabbis.

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