One of the elder chassidim I knew, Reb Mendel Futerfas, spent 14 years in hard labor camps because of his involvement in the chassidic underground in Stalinist Russia. The camp authorities knew that he would not perform ordinary work on the Jewish holidays, so they gave him chores that did not involve forbidden tasks. But that was the extent of their tolerance. It goes without saying that they did not provide him with time to pray or a prayer book.

Once on Rosh HaShanah, while Reb Mendel was performing the chores he was given, he was singing the holiday prayers to himself. While he was reciting the Musaf service and singing the hymn V’chol maaminim, which declares how all men share in the belief in G‑d, he stopped and thought: Why was he in a hard labor camp? Because there were people who did not believe, and whose unwillingness to believe was so fierce that they tried to crush — both physically and spiritually — those who did.

As he was thinking, he noticed one of the guards looking at him closely. The guard was tall and imposing. He had a scar running across his face that made him look particularly threatening. With such a person eyeing him, it was better not to take time out to think. Reb Mendel returned to his chores and shortly afterwards, the guard moved on.

On Yom Kippur, as Reb Mendel was going about his assigned chores, he saw the guard with the scar approaching. With a few deftly planned steps, the guard maneuvered Reb Mendel into a corner where no one else could see or hear what they were saying.

“Are you fasting today?” the guard asked Reb Mendel.

Reb Mendel answered affirmatively. There was no way he could deny it; his observance was common knowledge.

“So am I,” the guard continued. “Ten days ago, I heard you chanting a tune and it brought back memories of my father taking me to shul as a child. I realized that it was Rosh HaShanah, and I counted the days until Yom Kippur. I am also fasting.”

Reb Mendel and the guard both sensed that others might be looking, and each turned to go his way. But Reb Mendel’s quandary had been solved. He proceeded, humming the tune: V’chol maaminim, “All believe.”

Inside, we all believe, and Rosh HaShanah is an appropriate time to think how to have that inner belief control our thoughts and our conduct.

Rosh Hashanah Today

All Jews understand the difference between Rosh HaShanah and the secular New Year. Rosh HaShanah is not a time to party and let loose. True, it is associated with celebrations as the Bible states: “Go eat succulent foods and drink sweet beverages and send portions to those who have nothing prepared.... Do not be sad, for the joy of G‑d is your strength.” But the very same passage mentions the reason for that rejoicing: “The day is sacred to our G‑d.”

More particularly, Rosh HaShanah is the Day of Judgment, when G‑d “opens the book of memories... and all the inhabitants of the world pass before Him like sheep.... And He writes out their decree.”

Knowing the awesomeness of His judgment, many are concerned with their own future: “What will my coming year be like?” Some are concerned with their material future: How much will they make in the coming year? What will their health be? Will they marry and have children? Others focus on spiritual desires: Will they be able to gain wisdom? Will they be inspired with the love and fear of G‑d? Will they be able to meet the standards of piety and righteousness expected of them?

All of these desires can be expressed on many planes, with various different levels of motivation. When, however, they are reduced to their lowest common denominator, the question prompting all others is: Will G‑d give me what I want in the coming year?

On Rosh HaShanah, however, what we really should be thinking about is not what we want, but what He wants.

There is a classic chassidic adage: “On Rosh HaShanah, in some shuls, it is when the chazan comes to the words: ‘Repentance, prayer, and charity nullify the evil decree,’ that the emotions reach their peak. But in chassidic shuls, it is the words ‘Reveal the glory of Your sovereignty upon us’ that arouse the congregation most powerfully.”

G‑d did not have to create this world. On one hand, the fact that there is no reason compelling the creation introduces a dimension of utter randomness. There is no need for Him to conform to an existing plan; He can do anything He wants.

Conversely, however, the very same logic necessitates that everything which He did create was created for a specific desire and purpose. On Rosh HaShanah, when we relive the dynamic of creation, we should hone in on that purpose and make it the focus of our conduct.

What is His purpose in creation? As Rashi states at the very beginning of his Commentary to the Torah, all of existence was created “for the sake of the Torah and the Jewish people.” Simply put, that means that G‑d created the world so that a Jew could study the Torah and observe the mitzvos, not for our sake but for His.

Translating that into practical directives, this means when I see a person in need, I should help him, not because I feel sorry for him, but because G‑d commanded us to go out of our way to help another person. When I do a mitzvah, I should be thinking not of the reward G‑d will give me for fulfilling His will, but of the fact that I am fulfilling His will. When I am studying the Torah, I should be doing so not because it is intellectually edifying or interesting, but because it is His wisdom and He asked us to explore it.

Looking to the Horizon:
A Foretaste of the Shofar of Mashiach

Our Sages compare the sounding of the shofar on Rosh HaShanah to the sounding of trumpets at a king’s coronation. Similarly, our High Holiday prayers make a point of emphasizing His sovereignty.

In the present age, the use of the analogy of kingship to describe our relationship with G‑d is problematic. For a king is a figure of the past with no functional meaning to us today.

Yet that too is significant; for at present G‑d’s Kingship is not overtly revealed and the world appears to function independently.

When will His Kingship be revealed? “On that day, a great shofar will be sounded. And those who are lost... and those who are banished... shall come and bow down to G‑d on the holy mountain in Jerusalem.” In the era of the Redemption, “G‑d will be King over the entire earth... G‑d will be one, and His name one.”

On Rosh HaShanah, our acceptance of G‑d as King should have at its core a yearning to know true Kingship, and see G‑d “reign over the entire world in [His] glory... and reveal [Himself] in the majesty of [His] glorious might over all inhabitants” with the coming of Mashiach. May it be speedily in our days.