My high holiday's message from this year's bulletin. Best wishes for a happy and healthy 5774 to all of my friends and readers!
“Why does Rosh Hashanah come before Yom Kippur?” This question, asked by sages and scholars throughout the centuries, has profound implications for our experience during this holiday season. The logic of the question is as follows: Rosh Hashanah is largely a celebratory sort of occasion, even with the solemnity of the day; unlike Yom Kippur, there are large family meals, sweet foods, friendly greetings, and an overall festive atmosphere. Perhaps, it would make more sense to repent first, confess our sins, redirect our lives, and then celebrate. Is not a celebration before the difficult work of repentance and the achievement of atonement inappropriately premature?
I believe that the answer to this question teaches a fundamental truth about the nature and structure of the Yamim Noraim, the High Holidays. The Torah teaches that the holiday we fondly refer to as Rosh Hashanah is celebrated primarily through the blasts of the ram’s horn as a memorial (“zichron teruah”). As for the significance of this particular observance or the nature of the holiday itself, the Torah is vague and obscure. Strikingly, there is no mention of a new year, a day of judgment, or any of the overarching themes we’ve become so accustomed to.
Left with a void, the Rabbis understood the blasts of the shofar as a coronation ceremony, designed to remember/anoint the King of Kings and recall the creation of the universe. The concept of God as King dominates the Rosh Hashanah liturgy, yet it’s a difficult concept to grasp. For one, we’re not used to the notion of an all-powerful monarch in the modern era. Also, the terminology used (melech – king) may actually distract from the meaning of the term itself. The notion of God’s kingship is meant to evoke a consciousness of the fact that, while life can seem disparate, divergent, and devoid of order, there is always a living, loving God not only guiding existence but encompassing and causing it in the first instance. The Master of the Universe is exactly that, and experiencing that reality is the central theme of Rosh Hashanah.
Framed in this context, it becomes clear why Rosh Hashanah appears first on the calendar; before we are moved to introspect, recall, review, and repent on Yom Kippur, we need a framework in which to do it. Without an experiential and deep awareness of God’s loving sustenance and the responsibility that such a situation requires, repentance seems unnecessary or even misguided. To state it more simply, before we can evaluate our past actions and correct our ways, we need a compelling reason to do so, and a roadmap of where we ought to be headed.
My blessing to all of us is that we will be able to appreciate the holidays as a connected unit, truly experiencing God’s kindness and the most basic fact of our own existence, and that we will be inspired to become truer to our best selves, better able to emulate the divine kindness, love, and support we inherently receive and experience as we interact with others. Best wishes for a happy, healthy, sweet, thoughtful, and successful year to all.