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What Brought This Rebel Back for Rosh Hashanah

What Brought This Rebel Back for Rosh Hashanah

On the utter awesomeness of the Days of Awe

Rosh Hashanah Prayer by Arthur Szyk
Rosh Hashanah Prayer by Arthur Szyk

As a young boy, I was told that a Jew must go to the synagogue twice a year, stand up when the rabbi says to stand up, sit down when he says to sit down, listen to his entire sermon, and for this, he will be forgiven for all his sins.

As you can guess, by adolescence I was doing my own thing on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur—and it wasn't anywhere near a synagogue. It took a few years to discover a version of the Days of Awe that is truly awesome.

Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are about the power we have over our own destiny, the limits of that power, and the responsibility that comes with it. In that sense, they are days of extreme joy—only that it is an inner joy; a deep and meaningful one.

Which is what they call awe.

The Rosh Hashanah Scenario

Start here: What part do you play inside this universe?

Are you the victim?

There’s a hurricane of a world out there and you are not even a dandelion spore. Don’t bother telling the wind which way to blow, just pray you’ll make a safe landing. Who knows? Maybe in a ditch. Maybe in a fire. Whatever—a victim is a victim, even if he wins in the end.

To me, at age fourteen, a G‑d who was going to judge me on Rosh Hashanah was an automated press out to stamp me into the system. It didn’t matter if the stamp was “good,” “bad” or “reject.” I don’t need a stamp. I am who I am.

So I chose a different scenario.

I decided I am the director. I decide what life should be, what role I will play, and where I want to go. Which was mostly where my friends wanted to go.

A super-cool scenario. Problem is, it doesn’t exist. It’s an absurdity. It doesn't take long to discover you're not in control, the actors don’t care for your script, and the promises don’t deliver. And the heat of the world is more intense than the coolest Kool-Aid you could swallow.

No wonder. You didn’t write the script. You can be absolutely sure. You didn’t write the script.

So I was stuck. I was still just another cog. Go to shul. Run from shul. It’s all the same.

Unless there’s a third scenario. One in which there is no big schism between you and it. One in which it's all one drama. And your choice is whether that should be a drama of fear and submission, or of love and awe.

The Rosh Hashanah Question

“Make Me your king!”

That's how the rabbis describe G‑d’s command on Rosh Hashanah.1

“And how? Blow the shofar!”

Is G‑d really so insecure that He needs us to declare Him king, year after year? And if it's obedience He wants, why oh why did He choose to populate His world with beings such as us, creatures who can hardly bear to obey for more than a brief moment before we surrender to the urge to do what the heck we please?

So let me let you in on a secret about our Torah and our G‑d, one that our tradition says tacitly in many ways, but rarely explicitly: The voice arrives from heaven raw, coarse, abrupt and overwhelming. It's up to us to ask the right questions. And with those questions, the tone of that voice is transformed.

Here is a starter question:

G‑d, why do you need us to declare You king? The heavens and earth are Yours. You created them from nothing and at any moment You can return them to that void. Whatever You desire is in Your hand to achieve. Declare Yourself king, and it will be so!

Here is another one:

G‑d, if you are not our king, then why should we obey your command? And if you are already our king, then why are you demanding we make you king?

Yet another one:

G‑d, if you are not king, then how do we exist? And if we do not exist, how can we take part in Your decision to be king, and therefore allow us to exist?

Checkmate for G‑d. Until the chassidic masters explain His plea:

The Rosh Hashanah Decision

If this world has no author, then there is no drama, then there is no purpose, then you have no power. You are that spore torn in all directions at once by the wind.

If this world has an author, there is a drama, a story.

There is a story, but you are not the author. That surrender, yes, it is hard, but it is the greatest liberation.

It is hard because to make that surrender you have to reach inside to a place where there is no you, no dualities at all, where there is only the One.

It is liberating because if you are not the author of your script, nor the director of the play, then you are the actor. And the actor in this drama can change everything.

Because what is the drama about?

It is about a decision. Everything begins with a decision. A free decision. Because nothing has to be.

What is the decision?

G‑d asks, “Do I want to author a drama? Do I want to be an author? Do I want to be anything at all? Do I exist in some certain role, or is there really no expression of my existence whatsoever?”

And then He writes a drama—not about His decision, nor about His indecision. He writes a drama about that state of deciding.

The Rosh Hashanah Consultation

“Whom did He consult?” ask the rabbis, concerning the very first decision from which all began. And they answer, “He consulted the souls of the righteous.”2

Meaning, He consulted us. Because our souls are all righteous. And each moment is the beginning of all things. And each moment that decision happens again.

But the greatest of all moments is Rosh Hashanah. It is the opening of a new act, a fresh new start, a pivot-point upon which the actor can swing everything around.

On this day, we come together to decide, “Should there be just a mess of events with no meaning or purpose, or should there be a story? Is this place a place that just is, or is there an Author? Is life just 70, 80 years of biological deterioration, or is there eternal meaning to what I’m doing on this planet? What do I have to contribute? Do I really exist? Does existence matter?”

In a way, in the drama of Rosh Hashanah, we are playing G‑d. Not all of G‑d—we did not make this place, and we have little say on how it is run.

We are playing the role of that free will of G‑d, that divine capacity to decide. Paradoxically, through our surrender, we, the actor, become His co-author.

Together with Him, we replay that most primal decision of all decisions—from our place within the result of that decision. We decide whether our world is just a world where “stuff happens,” or whether it has an author, a masterful author, a king, and we live within magnificent palace of beauty and wonder.

That is His plea. When He says, “Make Me your king!” He is saying, “You decide. My decision is in your hands.”

It is a day for awe.

Inspired by the Rebbe’s discourse from Rosh Hashanah 1962, Maamar Yivchar Lanu 5723.

Talmud Rosh Hashanah 16a. Ibid 34b.
Midrash Rabbah, Genesis, chapter 8:7. Ibid, Ruth, chapter 2:1 (3).
Rabbi Tzvi Freeman, a senior editor at, also heads our Ask The Rabbi team. He is the author of Bringing Heaven Down to Earth. To subscribe to regular updates of Rabbi Freeman's writing, visit Freeman Files subscription. FaceBook @RabbiTzviFreeman Periscope @Tzvi_Freeman .
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k. September 18, 2017

Thanks for including the Rebbe's Farbrengen; Yes all his creatures, all living matter hear and are awakened by the sounding of the shofar. Rosh Hoshannah and the 10 days of Awe couldn't be more needed today ... when the groaning boards of the world need so desperately to see the table of Glory being prepared in our midst. Thank you, chabad. Reply

Anonymous 19702 September 23, 2017

Looking Inward-Journey of the Soul Oiy, vey. Many Jews after the holocaust turned away from Judaism.
But, I wonder how the rabbi's who suffered from being prisoners in Ukraine and in the camps, who were tortured, and survived and kept our religion alive in spite of suffering and risking of life; how did you manage not to be angry at Hashem? How did you manage to forgive Hashem for Him letting this happen? I am having a hard time struggling with this this year. And the death of the 13 year old girl whose throat was slit in her own home , after saying goodnight to her mother and father, the parents woke up the next morning to find their daughter horribly dead. I lay awake worrying about that young girl's mother. I would be a "basket case". Help me please to find forgiveness, and surrender in my heart. This- the pain suffered- has troubled me since I was a teen in high school. Reply

Pete WA September 18, 2017

God never asked me to anoint him my king. He set me down on earth and calls all the shots, whether I like them or not.

I'm in control of nothing save some simple choices. But who I am what I'll do must all be known by God and so what appears a life of choices is, in effect, the acting out of what has already been chosen and ordained.

This is my experience. Though I appear to be in charge of my life, I know I am not.

And the world keeps spinning toward its ultimate goal, and I play my role. Happy or not, the game of life continues to play itself out.

Is God my king? God is God. The name means, Everything. What else is there? Reply

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