This day is the beginning of Your works, a remembrance of the first day.

From the Musaf prayer for Rosh Hashanah

Actually, Rosh Hashanah marks not the beginning of G‑d’s creation of the universe, but His creation of man. The anniversary of the first day of creation is the 25th of the Hebrew month of Elul; Tishrei 1, the date observed as Rosh Hashanah, is the sixth day of creation, the day on which the first man and woman, Adam and Eve, were created.

Nevertheless, we say of Rosh Hashanah, “Zeh hayom techilat ma’asecha”--“This day is the beginning of Your works.” This day, because though man is the last of the creations in terms of chronological order, he is first among them in terms of function and purpose. For man alone possesses the single quality that gives meaning and purpose to G‑d’s creation.

Free Agent

Without man, the universe is a mere machine. Every mineral, plant and animal behaves in accordance with an ironclad set of laws dictated by its inborn nature, and has neither the inclination nor the ability to behave otherwise. Only man reflects his Creator in that he possesses free choice: only man can will and act contrary to his nature; only man can make of himself something other than what he is, transcending the very parameters of the self into which he was born.

So only man’s deeds have true significance. The industry of the ant or the faithfulness of the dove are no more “moral” than the cruelty of the cat or the deviousness of the snake. The majesty of a snow-capped Alp is no more virtuous than the stench of a putrefying swamp. For their "positive" or "negative" traits and characteristics are solely the result of the manner in which they have been formed and programmed by their Creator. But when man acts virtuously, rising above his instinctive selfishness to serve his Creator; or when he acts unvirtuously, corrupting his nature in a manner that no animal or object ever would or could, and then repents of his evil and even converts it into a force for good—something of true significance has occurred. Man has broken free of the “programmed” universe G‑d created, and has expanded it in ways that its implicit potential could not have generated or anticipated. Man has, in the words of our sages, become “a partner with G‑d in creation.”

The other, non-human elements of creation achieve fulfillment through man, when man involves them in the performance of a mitzvah—an act that fulfills a divine command. For example, the person who writes a check to charity has many participants in his deed: the paper and ink of his check; the natural resources and forces he has enlisted to earn the money he is giving; even the mountain out of which the marble in the facade of the bank which processes his check was quarried. These and innumerable other morally “neutral” elements have been elevated to inclusion in a creative, transcendent, human act, thereby realizing the purpose of their creation.

This is why Rosh Hashanah is the “beginning of Your works.” On this day, the first human being opened his eyes, beheld himself and his world, and chose to devote them both to the service of his Creator. His first act was to involve all of creation in his submission to G‑d. In the words of the Zohar,

When Adam stood up on his feet, he saw that all creatures feared him and followed him as servants do their master. He then said to them: “You and I both, ‘come, let us worship and bow down, let us kneel before G‑d our maker.’”

Every Rosh Hashanah, we repeat Adam’s call. We intensify our awareness of our Creator, reiterate our acceptance of His kingship, and rally all our resources for the task of making Him a tangible presence in our lives. As we proclaim in a central passage of the Rosh Hashanah prayers:

Our G‑d and G‑d of our fathers: Reign over the entire world in Your glory.... May every object know that You made it, may every creature understand that You created it, and may every thing that has the breath of life in its nostrils declare: G‑d, the G‑d of Israel, is King, and His kingship has dominion over all.

Thus the “Head of the Year” coincides not with the first day of creation, on which G‑d brought time, space and matter into being; or with its third day, on which He created life; or with its fourth day, on which He created creatures of instinct and feeling; but with the day on which G‑d made man “in His form, after His likeness,” imparting to him the divine capacity to will, choose and create. For this is the day on which the purpose of every component of His creation—mineral, vegetable, animal and human—began its actualization in the deeds of the first man and woman.

This and Thus

The difference between these two “first days”--the beginning of the physical creation on Elul 25 and the beginning of man’s implementation of its quintessential function on Rosh Hashanah — is expressed in the difference between two Hebrew words associated with these dates: zeh (“this”) and ko (“thus”).

Zeh implies a clear a clear and direct association with its object. When the Torah tells us that our forefathers, upon their miraculous crossing of the Red Sea, proclaimed “Zeh Keili,” “This is my G‑d...”, our sages interpret this to imply that it was “like one who points with his finger and says ‘This!’”

In contrast, the word ko, which means “thus” or “like this,” implies a more ambiguous reference. The Midrash points out that since, as a rule, a prophet receives his communication from the Almighty by way of allusion and metaphor, “all prophets prophesied with ko,” beginning their prophecies with the proclamation, “Ko amar Hashem,” “Thus said G‑d...” (Only Moses, to whom G‑d spoke “mouth to mouth, manifestly, and not in riddles,” was able to say “Zeh hadavar asher tzivah Hashem,” “This is the thing which G‑d has commanded.”)

Ko” is also the date of the beginning of creation. In the Holy Tongue, the letters of the alef-bet also serve as numbers; as a result, every word has a numerical value, and many numbers also form a word. The number 25 (kaf-hei) spells the word ko.

The world created on the 25th of Elul is a manifestation of G‑dliness. As the psalmist proclaims, “When I see Your heavens, the work of Your fingers, the moon and the stars which You have ordained...” G‑d chose to express Himself in His creation, much as the mind and character of an artist can be discerned in his work. But if the pre-Adam world bespeaks its Creator, it does so via a screen of evocation and insinuation. It is a “ko” expression of the divine, an intimation which obscures even as it reveals.

Only in the consciousness and achievements of man can there be a zeh revelation of G‑dliness. Only in a mind enabled to look beyond the veil of nature and self, only in a will not incorrigibly shackled to instinct and ego, can the divine reality unequivocally reside. Only in our choices and actions can G‑d be made real in our world.

With the creation of man on the first of Tishrei, the world became more than a ko entity, more than an allusion to its Creator. By choosing to subordinate himself to the Almighty, by devoting his mind to seek His truth, his heart to love and fear Him, and his life to implement His will, man made his soul and world a “dwelling for G‑d.”

So Rosh Hashanah, the birthday of man and the day of his annual affirmation of his role, is the day of which we say, zeh, “this,” is the day that marks “the beginning of Your works.”

Life as a Mineral

Man, say our sages, is a universe in miniature. So just as creation as a whole is comprised of ko and zeh factors—of the pre-human world created on Elul 25 and the human element introduced on Tishrei 1—so it is within the human being. And just as all elements of the macro-universe fulfill their purpose in creation via the deeds of man, so do all strata of the human “universe” attain fulfillment and realization through its distinctly human element, through the man in man.

Our sages categorize the entirety of creation as consisting of four “worlds” or “kingdoms”: the “inanimate” or mineral kingdom; the vegetable kingdom; the animal kingdom; and “the speaker” kingdom—the human being.

Man, too, incorporates these four “kingdoms” within himself. There are occasions and pursuits in our life in which we resemble the inert mineral. We might be asleep, on vacation, at play, or engaged in any of the other forms of repose and recreation to which we devote a significant portion of our time. Obviously, we are physically alive at these times; we might even be greatly exerting ourselves and employing our keenest faculties. But spiritually, we are an inanimate stone. “Life,” in its ultimate sense, is the endeavor to transcend one’s present state—to grow and achieve beyond what one is—while the function of our “mineral” pursuits is to sustain rather than produce, to conserve rather than create.

There are also times when a we are in our “vegetable” mode—when our focus is on self-growth and self-development. With these activities, we exhibit signs of spiritual life, as opposed to the inertia of our “mineral” hours. Nevertheless, because they are confined to the betterment of self, these represent a limited, “botanical” vitality: we are growing upwards, blossoming and bearing fruit; but we remain rooted to the “spot” where nature has planted us.

A more dynamic vitality is exhibited by the “animal” in us—the instincts, passions and sensitivities by which we relate to others. With our faculties for love, awe and other emotions, we roam the terrain beyond the narrow spectrum of self, transcending the merely vertical growth of our vegetable element.

But we are more than the sum of our mineral, vegetable and animal lives; more than repose, growth and feeling. The man in man, our quintessentially human qualities, are our intellect and our spirituality.

With our unique capacity for independent thought and discriminating intelligence, we transcend the self-defined world of instinct and feeling to view ourselves from the outside, and change ourselves accordingly. Thus the intellectual self is truly “alive”--constantly reassessing and redefining its perceptions and sensitivities.

Even more transcendent than the intellect is our spiritual self, the “spark of G‑dliness” within us that makes us the apex of G‑d’s creation. The intellect is “free” and “objective,” but only in relation to the subjective emotions; ultimately the intellect is defined and confined by the nature and laws of reason. The divine in ourselves, however, knows no bounds, surmounting all constraints and limitations that might inhibit our relationship with our Creator.

It is when we engage our intellectual and spiritual faculties that we are truly our human self. It is in these moments—when we employ our mind to literally recreate ourselves through self-critique and the refinement of our character and behavior, and when we transcend all inhibitions of ego, feeling and even intellect to serve G‑d without restraint or equivocation—that we rise to our role as G‑d’s partner in creation, as the only one of His creations who possesses the freedom to originate and create.

The Primacy of Man

Therein lies the double lesson of Rosh Hashanah, the day that emphasizes the centrality of man in creation.

On the macrocosmic level, Rosh Hashanah teaches us that “Every man is obligated to say: ‘The entire world was created to serve me, and I was created to serve my Creator.’" That our “privilege” to exploit nature’s resources to serve our own needs is also a duty and a responsibility, since it is through their contribution to our lives that all elements of creation can rise from the limitations of their “robotic” existence to share in the spiritually and transcendence of a human deed. When we prove equal to this task, we not only rise above our created state but also raise the entire universe with us; when we fail to do so, G‑d forbid, we not only debase our own humanity but also drag down with us everything that is partner to our existence.

The same applies to the microcosmic universe—the four-tiered life of man. Our “mineral,” “vegetable” and “animal” endeavors are important—indeed, indispensable—components of our lives; but we must remember that also in this inner world, everything was created “for my sake”--to serve the human in me.

When the goal of our recreational, growth-oriented and experiential activities is to enable our intellectual and spiritual lives, they, too become partners to our transcendental endeavor to remake ourselves, and the world we inhabit, in the divine image imprinted within us; they, too, become human endeavors, participants in the realization of the divine potential invested in man.