Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are known as the High Holidays. Many wonder about the inner meaning of the Jewish New Year and how we can approach it. To this end, we turned to Dr. Yaakov Brawer, well-known Chassidic scholar and lecturer and longtime professor of anatomy and cell biology at McGill University Faculty of Medicine, to share with us some insights into the significance of this time of year. The following are Dr. Brawer’s personal reflections on the New Year in the light of Chassidic teachings.

Rosh Hashanah is the Jewish New Year. Is there anything we can do so that next year will be better than this one?

I apologize if this might sound blunt, but I take issue with the outlook of wanting a better year. We don’t want a better year. We want a new year.

The prevalent attitude to the High Holidays works something like this: “Although I made mistakes this past year, I resolve to be a better Jew; to give more charity and to study more Torah. This way, I hope that next year will be better than this one.” In my personal opinion, this is a very trivial way of looking at the new year, because we’re not looking for a better year but for a new year.

With the above approach, we’re trapped in an endless, gradual continuum: next year will be a continuation of this year, just that it will be better. Gradual change toward good is great, but that’s not what the High Holidays are needed for. That’s what we’re supposed to be doing each day of the year; we constantly strive to become a better person. The holiest days of the year can’t only be about rectifying past mistakes and resolving to be better in the future!

Rosh Hashanah implies the onset of something new, something unique and unusual. If we don’t grasp the absolute unusual nature of Rosh Hashanah, we’re missing the point.

What does it mean to want a new year?

We need to ask ourselves a few fundamental questions that go beyond being a little bit better, nicer, and kinder.

We must ask ourselves: “Who am I and what am I doing here? What is my purpose, and why did G‑d put me into this world?”

Chassidic philosophy teaches us that every entity in the universe is created every moment ex nihilo, from nothing. Only G‑d Himself has the ability to create in such a way. All supernal realms and exalted beings can only generate entities that are lower manifestations of themselves. To create something new out of utter nothingness is a power solely in the hands of the ultimate Essence of G‑d.

This is who we are: We are new, created beings with a G‑dly soul. We have a connection to G‑d’s essence, by the very virtue of being created by Him and possessing our souls, which are a part of Him. This is something even the highest angel does not possess; it is unique to us as physical, created beings. And we have a certain amount of years to do something about this connection and relationship.

What’s even more amazing is that since we are independent, seemingly autonomous entities, we need to make choices, and G‑d created us such that those choices will affect all of creation.

The first thing we need to know is that simply being created means that we are placed in direct contact with our Maker. This unique position gives us the fabulous opportunity to do the same, as it were: we, too, can “create new worlds” and accomplish revolutionary things. This is the mandate which we were given from our Creator—to change everything around us and form “something out of nothing.”

Rosh Hashanah is when this opportunity becomes real. It’s not a matter of becoming a little bit better, but of grasping what life is all about! We can become radically new, radically different, and radically authentic to who we really are.

A colleague of mine, a non-Jewish psychiatrist, was the director of the Addiction Clinic at Montreal General Hospital. He had an expression he used with his patients which captured me. He would tell them that the only solution once they reached rock bottom was radical authenticity, to be what G‑d created them to be.

Read: Something from Nothing

So you’re saying that our very existence is infinitely significant, even without us doing anything?

Yes, at the very minimum. But this recognition will change us entirely.

Rabbi Sholom DovBer Schneersohn of Lubavitch once told his son, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak: “The movement of a single blade of grass—its velocity, acceleration, and deceleration—is pre-ordained from Above, and it is necessary for creation to be complete.” It, too, has a purpose.

I am a scientist specializing in molecular biology. When I look at a blade of grass—indeed, a single cell—I see an entire universe.

If the Almighty considers even such a minute detail to be of extreme importance; if a small blade of grass is so great just because it exists; can you imagine the significance of our actions?!

G‑d has given us an unbelievable mind and soul, a body with complex biology that most people don’t even begin to appreciate. There is a blessing that is said after using the restroom called Asher Yatzar, in which we thank G‑d for creating our bodies with wisdom. Some people spend thirty seconds reciting this blessing. For me, it can take a half hour!

Only G‑d Himself has free will, and He has endowed us exclusively with this gift. This tells us that our choices and actions are of critical importance. Both the credit and responsibility of our behavior is ours alone.

Let’s say you give a coin to a needy individual. From the onset of creation, a piece of copper has been waiting for its turn to be elevated. G‑d has scheduled a meeting between you and that piece of copper, so that you can accomplish something essentially critical with it by using it for a holy purpose.

Of course we must work on being better and improving our conduct, but I don’t believe focusing on the small details is what this time of year is all about. There is so much more at stake!

What does all this have to do with Rosh Hashanah?

During this time, we are gifted with a sense of perception and a sensitivity we normally do not possess.

We live in a world seemingly devoid of G‑dliness. In fact, one can live their entire life without realizing that G‑d is and does everything! Therefore, despite our inherent greatness by virtue of the very fact that we exist and have free will, we need some help from Above to accomplish the tremendous task He has given us—namely, to perceive who we are and behave accordingly.

Chassidic teachings explain that during the Hebrew month of Elul, the last month of the year, G‑d reveals His thirteen attributes of mercy and makes them accessible to us. This inspires and empowers us to do our G‑d-given mission successfully.

Moving on to Rosh Hashanah, Kabbalah offers the following insight. On the eve of Rosh Hashanah, the life-force of all created beings returns to its Source, and all that is left is a physical, material “scaffolding,” just enough to keep the world going. G‑d’s inner desire to continue creating all of existence is gone, and the world is left in a comatose state. The reality, meaning, and significance of existence is withdrawn, leaving a huge vacuum.

This all changes when we blow the shofar. Sounding the shofar initiates an entirely new infusion of divine energy. But the beauty lies in the vacuum. The energy for the next year is not a continuation of last year; rather it is entirely new, enabling us to create a radically new relationship with our Maker.

Read: The Making of Creation

How does blowing the shofar accomplish this?

There is an analogy given of a teacher and student. Their relationship is such that the student is bound with his very mind, body, and soul to his teacher; the teacher illuminates him and gives him life. Then, one day, the teacher announces that he no longer desires to teach him. He enters his office and closes the door.

For the student, this is a devastating blow. It is only then that he begins to truly appreciate the all-encompassing role the teacher plays in his life.

Meanwhile, the teacher has not truly left his student behind. In reality, his goal is to convey ideas of much greater depth to the student. To do so, he must detach himself from the present situation, to enable a shift to a higher plane of teaching. Moreover, for the student to be able to receive such lofty concepts, he must develop a greater appreciation of his teacher, which can only happen once there is a separation and he realizes what he is missing.

Reflecting on the great void, the student cries out in pain. This outcry inspires the teacher to come out of his room and resume teaching the student on a totally new, unsurpassed level.

Similarly, on the eve of Rosh Hashanah G‑d withdraws His presence from the world. This shakes us up and motivates us to cry out to Him—as symbolized by the blowing of the shofar—and He then endows us with an entirely new type of energy for the upcoming year.

This continues after Rosh Hashanah, throughout the Ten Days of Repentance, Yom Kippur, and the rest of the Hebrew month of Tishrei. It is a time to focus on our essential connection to G‑d, and not let ourselves be distracted by trivialities.

Read: A Cry from the Depths of Our Souls

What does it mean that we have an essential connection to G‑d?

Our relationship with G‑d is like that of a child and a parent. The parent-child relationship is not about externalities, rather it is an essential connection. You don’t love your child because he is smart and kind and behaves well in school, but because he is you.

G‑d is our Father in Heaven, and He lets us access this dimension of His, in which He is our Father and we are His children. G‑d chooses to love us for no reason whatsoever, only because we are His children. There is an essential bond of love that exists between us and our Creator.

Moreover, even the difficulties we may experience in life are part of this relationship. Children tend not to appreciate that the disciplining parent and the loving parent are not two separate personas but are one and the same; both types of interaction are equal expressions of love. I believe people must realize that the harshness that is part and parcel of this world comes from the same loving Father who gives us what we can easily identify as good.

This is how we must return to G‑d—out of love. It’s true that fear of G‑d is essential as well, but the primary focus should be on love. I’ll add that “fear of G‑d” is more correctly translated as awe: How can you enter the chamber of your Father and King, who creates you anew every second, and not stand in utter awe?! Love and awe work hand-in-hand.

Do you have a final message you can give our readers?

It is imperative to study Chasidut, Chassidic thought. A Jew cannot truly live as a Jew without Chasidut. Chasidut presents G‑dly ideas in a manner the human mind can grasp, enabling us to sense and perceive these ideas and use them to forge an ever-growing relationship with G‑d and change ourselves and the world around us.

For a wide range of essays, insights, and readings on Chassidic thought, visit our Chassidic Thought minisite.

Watch Dr. Brawer’s series of lectures on Chassidic discourses: Understanding Chassidus