Rosh Hashanah is a somewhat schizophrenic holiday. On the one hand, we dress in white, eat sumptuous meals and dip apples and challah in honey. On the other hand, the liturgy of Rosh Hashanah does not include Hallel, the joyous psalms recited on our other festivals (Psalms 113-18). Instead, we emphasize sin, repentance and preparation for Yom Kippur. We envision God as sitting in judgment with the books of life and death open before Him. Aren’t these two aspects of the holiday — the joy and the need to repent — inherently inconsistent?
Apparently not, because this duality of moods has Biblical roots. The holiday that we today call Rosh Hashana (the name itself is post-Biblical) is mentioned twice in the Torah (Lev. 23:23-25 and Num. 29:1-6), but there is no reference to its observance in any of the prophetic books that preceded the destruction of the first Beit haMikdash (Temple). That doesn’t mean that it wasn’t observed, but it suggests that, during that period, it did not yet have the hold on the Jewish imagination that it subsequently acquired.
The Babylonian exile appears to have ended that relative obscurity. When the Jewish exiles were permitted by the Persian emperor Cyrus to return to Jerusalem under the leadership of Zerubabel, and the high priest Joshua ben Jozadak, they erected an altar and made a point of assembling “as one” to reinstitute the sacrificial service on the first day of the seventh month (Ezra 3:1-3), i.e. on Rosh Hashana. “From the first day of the seventh month, they began to make burnt offerings to the Lord, though the foundation of the Temple of the Lord had not been laid.”(Ezra 3:6).
The initial return from exile did not go smoothly. The returned exiles were harassed by other local peoples who were not thrilled by their presence. Although the Persian king had initially sanctioned the return, the support of Persian officialdom for their efforts was inconsistent. Though the rebuilding of the Temple proceeded for a while, the rebuilt Temple remained but a shadow of the Temple of Solomon that had preceded it. “[T]he old men who had seen the first house wept loudly at the sight of the founding of this house.” (Ezra 3:12)
Meanwhile, the outer walls of Jerusalem had been allowed to fall into disrepair. Under the lackluster leadership of Zerubabel and the high priest Joshua ben Jozadak, moreover, the spiritual enthusiasm that had infused the initial return had waned. The returned exiles had begun to intermarry with the local population and, apparently had begun to adopt some pagan practices as well. At this point, two new leaders arose: Ezra, the priest and scribe, and Nehemiah, the political leader. We learn of both of them primarily through the biblical books that bear their respective names. They presumably worked in collaboration with each other, though the precise nature of their collaboration is not clear.
What is striking if you read their narratives carefully is the difference between what we might call their respective leadership styles. Ezra, the priest and scribe, was “an expert in the Torah of Moses” and was apparently revered as a religious leader even by the Persian king (Ezra 7:21-26). When informed of the people’s sinfulness, his immediate reaction was to tear his clothes in mourning and to pray to God for forgiveness.
Nehemiah, on the other hand, who bore the Persian title Tirshata, was a more pragmatic leader, and obviously well connected in the Persian royal court. His first priority was to repair the broken walls of Jerusalem and to establish patrols to defend the city from their local enemies. Then he persuaded the wealthy residents to ease up in their treatment of the poor. Only after demonstrating his ability to bring them security and equity then did he assemble all the people in Jerusalem to hear Ezra read and explain the Torah, much of which the people had neglected.
The Book of Nehemiah tells us the story of that gathering, which took place on Rosh Hashanah:
On the first day of the seventh month, Ezra the priest brought the Teaching [Torah] before the congregation, men and women and all who could listen with understanding… Ezra opened the scroll in the sight of all the people, for he was above all the people. As he opened it all the people stood up. Ezra blessed the Lord, the great God, and the people answered “Amen, Amen” with hands upraised. Then they bowed their heads and prostrated (themselves before the Lord with their faces to the ground
(Neh.8:3, 5-7, JPS translation)
It sounds like an impressive occasion. Ezra’s reading and teaching of the Torah on that occasion was intended to be a dramatic renewal of the covenant at Sinai, but the people’s initial reaction was despair:
Having already internalized the prophetic message that their exile was a deserving punishment for their sins and recognizing how far short they had fallen from the ideals articulated in the Torah, the people feared that they would fall short once again and thus lose that which they had only just reclaimed. Ezra and Nehemiah both knew that the people’s despair could well backfire, leading them not to strengthen their connection to God and Torah, but rather to conclude that they could never live up to God’s expectations. The narrative continues:
Nehemiah the Tirshatha, Ezra the priest and scholar, and the Levites who were explaining to the people said to all the people, “This day is holy to the Lord your God; you must not mourn or weep,” for all the people were weeping as they listened to the words of the Torah. He further said to them. Go, eat choice foods and drink sweet drinks and send portions to whosever has nothing prepared, for the day is holy to our Lord. Do not be sad for our rejoicing in the Lord is the source of our strength… Then all the people went to eat and drink and send portions and make great merriment, for they understood the things they were told.
Note that the text is unclear as to what it was that the people “understood”. Maybe it was that despair, rather than being a goad to repentance, can easily become an obstacle to it. Maybe it was that Ezra and Nehemiah, while commanding them to celebrate the holiday with joy, managed to sneak in a reminder not to neglect those less fortunate. Or maybe it was that those who find joy in serving God can find in that joy a source of strength that can get them through the difficult times that life too often includes.
Whatever it was that the people understood on that Rosh Hashanah many centuries ago, we are no less in need of such understanding today. The dual mood of Rosh Hashana can help to foster such an understanding/ May our celebration of Rosh Hashanah again this year continue to combine liturgical solemnity with conspicuous festivity in that special mix that a life of Torah encourages.
A ketiva vechatima tovah to all.