Rosh Hashanah is about time. The liturgy, as illuminated in Chabad literature, challenges our intuitive notions of time’s sequential nature, of cause and effect, and particularly of the relationship of the moment we call “now” with all that came before it.

The dynamic with which we are left is of weighty consequence. It’s a radical empowerment of every human being to change not only his future, but also his past, and even the past of those affected through his actions.

Effectively, every moment of “now” becomes the beginning of everything.

The Birth of the Universe

The starting point is a statement that superficially seems almost bizarre, yet is repeated several times on Rosh Hashanah:

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

Bizarre in several ways. Firstly, the consummate assertion of that first phrase, as though nothing preceded this day, as though this Rosh Hashanah number 5781 can simultaneously be counted as Year Zero.

That seems absurd. How is it possible to move into the future only to find yourself back at Year Zero again, year after year?

And in case you need evidence that we mean what we say, here’s another phrase we repeat several times on Rosh Hashanah:

“Today is the birth of the world.”

No, not an anniversary of the birth—not a birthday in the sense we generally use the term contemporarily. Today the world is born. Period.

But then, immediately following that unequivocal assertion of “This is the day itself,” we take a step back with “Actually, it’s only a remembrance.”

Which is it, the actual Day Zero, or just an anniversary? Why give one impression only to take it back?

The signature of great minds is their willingness to There are two dynamics in a single day, on two distinct planes, the second plane—the memory—being yet higher than the first. tackle a paradox for what it is, refusing to ignore it, resisting the urge to whittle it away with platitudinal compromises.

So we find the Tzemach Tzedek (Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Lubavitch, 1789-1866) embracing the notion that Rosh Hashanah could be both opposites: It is the very first day in the most absolute sense. And it is also a memory of a beginning in the very distant past. There are two dynamics in a single day, on two distinct planes, the second plane—the memory—being yet higher than the first.1

Hang in there. We’ll unfold all this apparent dissonance, step by step.

The Birth of Human Consciousness

First: How can each Rosh Hashanah, every year, be “the very first day of creation?”

A very helpful strategy for dealing with any knotty problem is to find a way to make the problem yet more excruciating. Here, that’s easy: The tradition is that Rosh Hashanah is the anniversary of the creation of Adam, the first human being, containing both male and female. Since Adam was created on the sixth day of creation, that makes Rosh Hashanah not the first, but the sixth day of creation.

Even if we would attempt to interpret these phrases as references to an anniversary, we’re even more confounded. How can the anniversary of the first day be five days after the first day?

This is a classic conundrum, and many significant scholars of the Torah have provided their answers. Adam is the crown of the creation, the purpose, the starting point at which the world begins telling its story.2 But none of those solutions address the statement at the ground floor, at its most literal meaning.

There is, however, an explanation given by the Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory, that does just that.3 The most literal solution, said the Rebbe, is that on Day Six Simple: The five days that led up to day six were effectively rescinded and replaced by an entirely new set of five days.the world began five days earlier. How does that work? Simple: The five days that led up to day six were effectively rescinded and replaced by an entirely new set of five days.

Not so mystifying. We do it all the time with our stories and humor. We tell a story that seems to be one thing, and then comes a punch line that suddenly provides a completely unexpected context. When our minds review the story now, every detail has an entirely new meaning.

Where did the original story go? Did it vanish into nothingness? No. We simply realized it never was. From where did the new, real story appear? From the punch line that came at the end.

That was the case with the very first story ever told, the story the Creator told. With that story, He created a world.

Here’s how it goes: First, darkness. Nothingness. No form or matter from which anything can emerge. Then, out of nowhere, light appears. Then a sky. An ocean. Dry land appears as eruptions and great shifts rip landmasses apart. A carpet of green sweeps over the earth. The sun, the moon, and stars appear above. Fish, birds, bugs, reptiles swarm within the waters and in the sky. Then mammals of every sort roam upon the land.

What is the story? Where is this going? What is it about?

There is no story. It goes nowhere. It’s not about anything. Aboutness does not exist. Where did you see any aboutness in this narrative? It’s just stuff happening, one thing after the other.

It’s a world, after all. A world, by definition, must appear self-contained, as though it is a closed system, without any further context. And when there is no context, there is no meaning, no story.

Until, on the sixth day, there was Adam.

Something radical has entered. A being that speaks. A being that tells stories.

That changes everything. Even the past. The past has become a story. The past is now about something.

The Punch Line

Here’s a story right now—a simple story from the treasury of Talmudic stories. Because the deepest truths are told in the simplest stories:4

When Adam was first created from the earth, and the divine breath of life was breathed into his nostrils, he stood up on his two legs.

He stared upward. He stared downward. His stature covered the entire world, from East to West. He saw all the creatures the Holy One, blessed be He, had created. And then he burst into praise for His Creator. “What a great number of works You have made, oh G‑d!” he exclaimed.

As he stood upon his feet, he himself looked like a god. The other creatures saw him and they were in awe. They understood that this must be their creator. They all came to prostrate themselves before him.

He said, “You come to bow down to me? Let us go, you and I, dressed in grandeur and strength, and we will elect over us the One who created us all. For it is the citizens that elect the king, and the king cannot make himself king if the citizens do not elect him!”

Adam himself went first, and then all the creatures after him did the same.

He said, “G‑d will rule! He will be dressed in grandeur! G‑d will be dressed and girded with strength! The world will stand firm! It will not be shaken!”5

Some dismiss such stories as fantasy. They should take an ounce of wisdom. Beneath every detail of this story lies another jewel. It’s a statement about the place of the human being within the universe. It’s also about the meaning of Rosh Hashanah—the anniversary of the creation of Adam and this story.

Most of all, it’s about each one of us.

A day comes when you wake up. Or perhaps, you awaken gradually over many years. You look up, you look down. There is a universe about you. You are within it. You detect patterns. You see chaos. You find order, sequence, beauty, ugliness, emptiness, confusion. Adam is the observer of the universe because he is capable of recognizing that the universe does not have to be.Within it all, you see yourself. You are Adam.

Adam is the observer of the universe because he is capable of recognizing that the universe does not have to be. Nothing has to be the way it is. Nothing has to be at all. That puts everything into a context—into something bigger than this universe that contains it. The context forces a question: What is the meaning of all this?

The answer for Adam was that it has meaning as a work of art by its Creator. As a true work of art, every detail speaks the authorship of its artist. As an author is a king and master over his art, so the Creator is king and master over His creation. If human art is a glimpse into the soul of a human being, the creation is a hint of the Infinite.

As there is no art without an audience to appreciate the art, so there is no king without those subjects who will pronounce him king. In our case, the members of the audience were (and still are) the works of art themselves. It was up to each of them to sing their own praise. Beginning with Adam.

Until Adam was created, there was no art, no kingdom, no story. There was not even a possibility for anything to be such—since the entire masterpiece was forged in solitude, without a partner, without an observer to appreciate what had been achieved.

Yes, that was the intent of it all—that it be seen for what it is. But it was an intent known only to its Author. So that, from the Creator’s vantage point, nothing had really happened at all. Nothing more than setting the stage in the middle of an empty desert.

But with the advent of this Adam creature, not only did the story begin, it’s past now had a context that gave it meaning. Every created being that had emerged in those six days now became a commentary on the majesty of its Creator. How each detail had emerged, when it had emerged, what exactly emerged—all this told of an awesome, wondrous wisdom beyond comprehension.

The endless diversity of the creatures, the magnificent harmony of environment and organism so that the cycles of the sun and moon, of rain and wind, of cold and hot, wet and dry all were integrated into the very metabolic processes of every ant and elephant—all this bespoke of an unspeakable oneness that could only be expressed in a virtually infinite multitude of colors, sizes, behaviors and temperaments that somehow balanced one another and harmonized with each other in synchronization with an invisible Suddenly, there was a story—and it had begun five days earlier.conductor.

Suddenly, there was a story—and it had begun five days earlier.

So there occurred the very first Rosh Hashanah, the very beginning of all things, as the Creator was crowned as King and Author by His creation. Because now there was Adam, a creature that could recognize all this, appreciate it all, and speak it out loud, so that each living thing became another facet of its Creator’s magnificence. The universe with all that lived within it was retroactively imbued with meaning and purpose. It became worthwhile.

Rewriting Your Own Past

“The human being,” writes the Rebbe, “just as Adam on that day, has the capacity to change the past. Even the past outside of himself.”6

Take the human being who has a mess of a life behind “The human being, just as Adam on that day, has the capacity to change the past. Even the past outside of himself.”him. Abuse, shame, pain, failure. “And the earth was void and empty, with darkness over the face of the depths.”

And yet at some point, almost miraculously—since he is a human being, after all—he finds the strength to pull his life together.

But what does he do with the trauma of the past? Memories, we have learned, can never be destroyed or forgotten. They may warp and become distorted, but they never disappear.

A painful memory continues to cause pain. A shameful one will not let up on its shame. The memory of failure continues to set roadblocks at every crossroad of life. The experience of abuse continues to manifest in its many ugly guises—as anger, as cowardice, as numbness, as a fear to move forward in life, a trepidation of relationships, and a gagging reflex to vulnerability.

So what he does is to choose a new frame for all these portraits of the past. A greater context. One that transforms them, even inverts them, from ugly, creepy monsters to divine guardian angels.

Because his strength today, the depth of life that he experiences now, the sense of accomplishment he now knows because he bootstrapped himself out of that mud—he looks back and sees all this as it formed within the womb of his past. Within the earth, as it was “void and empty, darkness over the face of the deep,”7 there lay a story to be told.

“Great is teshuvah,” taught Rabbi Shimon Ben Lakish, “because it inverts even deliberate sins into merits.”8

Teshuvah means to return, to come back to who you really are and leave behind a false past. Rabbi Shimon Ben Lakish was a master of teshuvah—he had led a gang of highway robbers through pillage, murder, and rape, only to return to a Torah life and become one of the major sages of the Talmud. Even then, he was known as Resh Lakish—meaning, quite literally, “head gangster.”

How can we accept a man who committed such crimes against man and G‑d as a sage and voice of halachah?

Because when he returned, he did so with great love and joy, and in doing so, he harnessed the energy of those crimes and channeled it into the joy of learning Torah and the love of his fellow human being. Resh Lakish was a man who rewrote the story of his own past.

You might say, “But the past remained what it was—a past of crime. People were robbed of their possessions, of their human dignity, and of their lives. Each crime casts a ripple of disasters in its wake—perhaps, in this case, a tsunami. For himself, Resh Lakish changed the meaning of his past. But the actions remain.”

So it would seem. But the Rebbe insists that a human being is capable of changing even the past outside of himself.

How is that possible? Only because the universe has a soul, an inner core. There is Behind every action is an energy that defines that action and directs its propagation of new events over time.more to the universe than “stuff that happens.”

Behind every action is an energy that defines that action and directs its propagation of new events over time. What determines the sort of energy that goes into any particular action? The intent of the individual who initiates that action. An action with a selfish intent receives a kind of energy that does not allow anything divine to enter. An action done with divine purpose, on the other hand, can only lead to more good things.

So as the meaning of your past changes, its energy changes as well. As its energy changes, so the direction to which it has led external events adjusts and swerves. All those disasters left in its wake will somehow turn around for the good as well. Ask those who have done teshuvah out of love and joy, and they will attest to its power to pull in even those with whom they committed their misdeeds.

It turns out that time does not flow through a tidy chain of events from the past to the future. Rather, the dynamo of time lies within the moment now. Each moment of “now” is potentially the beginning of all time. Because right now you have the power to rewrite the entire story.

Many Beginnings

G‑d could have created a world with a single beginning. That would have been a very top-down universe. Which is not what He wanted.

Instead, He created an interactive universe—one whose creatures could interact with their Creator in the creation of their own world, step by step, year by year, day by day.

That’s the meaning of Rosh Hashanah. Together with Yom Kippur and the eight days between the two, these ten days provide the most fertile soil These ten days provide the most fertile soil for planting a new life and becoming a partner in the creation of your world.for planting a new life and rewriting the past. To become a partner in your own creation and the creation of your entire world. Because they mark the anniversary of the creation of that opportunity, through the creation of humankind.

On Rosh Hashanah, when we resolve how the new year will be, the past year, with all its confusion and ugliness, emptiness and darkness, is thrown into a new context, placed under a new light, so that now we see the magnificence and beauty, truth and goodness it has brought us. In the ten days from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur, we each are given a pen and paper and told, “Rewrite your backstory. And with that, I will rewrite the movie in which you star.”

Now let’s go back to that second phrase. Not only is Rosh Hashanah “the beginning of Your works”—it is also “a remembrance of the first day.”

On the first day, the first time around, there was no human being—and so, no interaction. The very first time around, you might say, was the only free lunch. After that, it all depends on us.

So what triggered that first free lunch? What was behind the Creator’s decision to burst an entire universe with all its diversity into existence?

Kabbalists call it a desire for pleasure. What pleasure? The pleasure He chose to have from seeing His creatures take charge of their lives and join with Him in the act of perfecting creation.

That is how they interpret the verse, “For He desires kindness.”9 What kindness does He desire? The ultimate kindness. The kindness of providing human beings the dignity of building their own world and writing the stories of their own lives for the good. In that, the Creator decided, He will find pleasure. Enough pleasure to make an entire universe worthwhile, and infinitely more.

On Rosh Hashanah, explains the Tzemach Tzedek,10 we trigger that pleasure once again as we redirect the course of our lives.

This is why Rosh Hashanah is called a remembrance of the first day: “The first day” is a reference to that distant, primal origin of our universe. We reach back to that hidden place beyond creation, awakening the thought of pleasure that initiated all things. We On this day, we reach back to that hidden place beyond creation, awakening the thought of pleasure that initiated all things.bring that memory to the foreground, saying, “See how we have turned our lives around! See how Your children have managed to squeeze beauty and goodness out of this confusing, harrying world! Isn’t it for this that You created all things at the very beginning?”

And the Creator responds by pouring life, delight, joy, and pleasure into our lives for the coming year.

Based on the Rebbe's Maamar "Zeh Hayom" 5742, part 3 (Torat Menachem, Sefer Hamaamarim Melukat, vol. 1, pp. 42–43).