Judaism is mysterious. It comes gift-wrapped from heaven with ribbons, strings and knots, each unraveling to disclose yet another mystery, an ever-widening unknown of yet more knots to untie, more strings to follow along an endless path. And with each unraveling another discovery, and with each discovery a deeper wisdom.
Rosh Hashanah is one of those great mysteries. How is it that the beginning of the year appears on the first day of the seventh month? Why are we blowing a ram’s horn, and why do we give it such a central role? What is the cosmic drama of this day, and what is our part in it?
Most puzzling is the Torah’s reticence. It speaks cryptically, as though discussing something we are expected to know without it telling us.
“It will be a day of sounding for you,” we are told. Sounding what? That we are not told. King David wrote in his Psalms, “Sound the shofar at the new moon, at the hiddenness of our festival.” And that is the sole biblical reference we have for our tradition that we are to sound not our voices, not a trumpet, nothing else but a ram’s horn.
But then another verse tells us, “It will be a day of remembrance of sounding for you.” And from this we are to understand not to sound anything—just to remember. Our tradition resolves the matter, that G‑d is requesting, “Recite verses of kingship before Me to make Me your king. Recite verses of remembrance before Me, that the memory of you shall rise before Me. And how? With a shofar.” Oh, what a puzzling tradition.
How do we know all this? And how do we know that this is the beginning of the year—something not mentioned anywhere in the Five Books of Moses?
The short story is, because we always knew. We knew because when Moses received the Torah, all this was clear to him as well, and he transmitted this information, even if he did not write it down. And even before we heard from Moses, we knew about Rosh Hashanah. Abraham received the ancient teachings from Shem, son of Noah. Noah in return had received from Methuselah, who had received from Enoch. And Enoch certainly knew of Rosh Hashanah, for he received his wisdom directly from Adam, who had been formed on that day.
Rosh Hashanah, then, is not just a Jewish holiday. Rosh Hashanah is the birthday of humankind.
One mystery closes and another opens. Look through the entire book of High Holiday prayers and you will find no mention of Adam’s birth. What you will find is the repeated statement “Today is the birthday of the world.” You will also find an enigmatic phrase, “This day is the beginning of Your works, a remembrance of the first day.”
Suggesting a fascinating thought, indeed one the modern scientist may embrace: perhaps the cosmos was born only when Adam opened his eyes to observe and name each thing? After all, don’t the quantum physicists and cosmologists of today tell us that there can be no events, no universe, without an observer? The universe begins, then, with the creation of the first human consciousness; “He blew into his nostrils the breath of life, and Adam became a living being.”
Fascinating, but not quite satisfactory. Because, in fact, the book of Genesis tells that Adam was formed on the sixth day of creation. There was a world before. Granted, a very different world than the one we know of, one in which matter, energy, time and space came into being and took form, in which events occurred at a rapid rate and the simple evolved to the complex within moments of time. But it was a world, nevertheless. Why then, goes the classic question, do we commemorate Rosh Hashanah on the birthday of Adam and not six days earlier on the birthday of the world?
And the classic response is: because we are not celebrating an anniversary; “Today is the birthday of the world” means today, now. Today the world is born again. This day is “the beginning of Your works,” reminiscent of the very first time the world was made. Only that the first time the world was born, it was a free gift. Since then, it depends on us, the Adam. And so, it occurs on our birthday, Rosh Hashanah. We are reborn, and within us the entire cosmos.
The entire cosmos is on life support. Like the glowing phosphors that form characters on a screen, like a lifelike holographic image—pull the plug and the whole thing vanishes without a trace. Were G‑d to pull the plug on His creation (G‑d forbid), space itself would vanish. Even time would be annulled—the world would never have existed, its history would be erased. Nothing, not even a read-only memory.
There is not a particle of the universe that sustains itself. With every moment, the universe and each thing within it pulsates with the vital energy that gives it being. Our planet Earth is a clock to the rhythm by which it throbs—a cycle of moments and days, of months and years. Each moment, the life needed for that moment emerges, is absorbed, and then returns to its source. Each day, the energy for that day; each month for that month. This is the name for month in Hebrew, chodesh, meaning “renewal.”
But the most important renewal of life is that which occurs on Rosh Hashanah. Because that is when all life of the previous year returns to its essential source, and a new life, such as was never known before, emerges from the void to sustain existence for an entire year.
The quality of this new surge of power will determine everything; as the poet of the Machzor writes, “who will die and who will live.” Some years are years of plenty; others bring blessings more subtle, more concealed. Some are years of joy, others of challenge.
In the 48 hours of Rosh Hashanah, all of this makes its entry into the world. That is why every moment of these forty-eight hours counts. That is why we call it Rosh Hashanah—the “head” of the year, and not just “New Year’s Day” or “the beginning of the year”: Just as the head contains within it a neuro-switch for every part of the body, so is the head of the year a concentrated preview of the entire coming year. Because it all enters here.
Any moment of Rosh Hashanah could contain the most important day of your year to come.
Rosh Hashanah, one could say, is the new year’s birth canal.
Curious, isn’t it, that a shofar with its narrow mouthpiece and wider opening resembles a birth canal? In fact, the Bible mentions a great woman with a name of the same etymology: Shifrah. She was the midwife of the ancient Hebrews who left Egypt. Her name means “to make beautiful,” and that is what she did: She ensured that the babies would emerge healthy and viable, then swaddled and massaged them to foster their strength and beauty.
The shofar is the midwife of the new year. Into its piercing cry we squeeze all our heartfelt prayers, all our tears, our very souls. All that exists resonates with its call until it reaches the very beginning, the cosmic womb. And there it touches a switch: The Divine Presence shifts modalities from transcendence to immanence, from strict judgment to compassion. In the language of the Zohar, “The shofar below awakens the shofar above, and the Holy One, blessed be He, rises from His throne of judgment and sits in His throne of compassion.”
New life enters our world and takes its first breath. It is our own life as well, and it is in our hands.
Isn’t this strange, that a created being should take part in its own creation? Imagine cartoon characters participating with the artist in their own design. Imagine them pleading with the broadcasting corporation for airtime in the coming season. Imagine the figments of your own imagination telling you what to imagine.
Now imagine us, the created beings, pleading with our Creator, “Grant us life! Good life! Nice things! Be out there, in the open! Get more deeply involved with Your world!”
How could it be, in the inner chamber of the Cosmic Mind, where it is determined whether we should be or not be, that there we are, pleading and participating in that decision? There must be something of us that lies beyond creation, something eternal. Something G‑dly. We call it “the G‑dly soul.”
That is why we can call G‑d both a king and a father:
A king, in the most ultimate sense of kingship, because He determines whether we will be or not be.
A father, because there is something of Him within us—and therefore we can take part in that decision.
And we are the child. Your child is not like everyone else. Your child is you. And yet, your child is not you. Your child is his own person. So too, each of us has an inner soul that is the breath of G‑d within us. We are the connection point between G‑d and His universe. And so we are called His children. And we can call Him our Father.
If so, on Rosh Hashanah, G‑d takes Himself to court.
He looks down from above at this world and, as I’m sure you may realize, it doesn’t always look so good. But G‑d is not just beyond the world; He is within it as well. He is found in every atom of this world. But only the soul of Man can argue on His behalf. So we do that. It may sound strange, but this is what is happening: He as He is above takes Himself, as He is present within this world, to trial.
We are the lawyers for the defense. We acknowledge that all His complaints are well-founded and just. We plead guilty on all counts. But we demonstrate sincere regret and declare that we now truly accept upon ourselves to clean up our acts and make this coming year a much, much better one than the past. Above all we make sure to speak only good about others and give them our blessings for a good and sweet year. For how we judge others is how we ourselves will be judged.
The spark of G‑d within us below connects with the Infinite Light of G‑d above. The circuit is complete, and the universe is rebooted with a flow of energy for an entire year.