When it comes to the Jewish Holidays that scatter our national calendar, there is often confusion about the true nature of the celebration. I believe that Rosh Hashana is quite possibly the most misunderstood holiday of the year- spanning the first two days of the New Year, and called יום הדין, יום הזיכרון and יום תרועה, Rosh Hashana’s true nature is quite mysterious. The symbolism is clear- judging of fates, blowing the shofar as a reminder for all to repent, dipping the apple in the honey to symbolize a sweet new year- it’s all there. But what is the deeper meaning of the holiday that we will be celebrating on Wednesday night?
I find that a lot can be learned about the essence of a chag from the scriptural readings that Chazal assigned for that day. For Rosh Hashana, there are two distinct themes for the two days. On the first day, we read of two desperate tefilot being miraculously fulfilled, both for children from a woman who never believed she would have any- in the Torah reading, we read of the joy that Avraham and Sarah have on the birth of our forefather Yitzchak, and the Haftara features the moving story of Chana’s birth of Shmuel Hanavi and her subsequent song of praise. The underlying theme on the first day of Rosh Hashana is clearly the potential of Tefilot being answered.
However, the second day’s message is a little bit less clear. From the Torah, we continue the story of Yitzchak, of the terrible challenge that Avraham faces having to sacrifice his son and the miraculous last minute salvation from this deed. Then, we read from the thirty first perek of Yirmiyahu, but this time there is no happy ending, only hope for the future as we read of our own plight. The Jewish People were exiled for their sins, but one day there will be salvation, Hashem tells Yirmiyahu. Rachel calls out for children to return, and G-d reassures her that they will soon return from their enemy’s land, fulfilling His promise to Avraham of “וירש זרעך את שער איביו.” The reading ends on a high note: “רחם ארחמנו נאם ה’– I will surely take pity on them, the words of Hashem.” It emerges that the theme of the Second Day of Rosh Hashana is of tests- Avraham is tested after his tefilot are tested, and the Jews in the exile are being tested in order for their tefilot to be answered.
If we take a step back and look at the bigger picture, it becomes clear that theme of Rosh Hashana, at least based on the readings from scripture, is judgment, יום הדין. On the first day, we read of G-d’s judgment, His merciful decision to answer Sarah and Chana’s tefilot, and on the second day, we read of our judgment, the decisions and reactions to challenges and tests that allow us to earn merciful judgment, whether before the actual bracha is given or after.
This message is extremely important in our times. We live in a world of many challenges, of Hamas, ISIS, Anti-Semitism, and Religious issues (חילול השם, intermarriage), and Rosh Hashana is the time for us to beseech G-d for a safe and healthy new year. The sky is the limit in terms of how our salvation will arrive, and all we need to do is take יום הדין seriously and make our case before G-d just as Avraham and Sarah and Chana did. Even now, on Erev Rosh Hashana, it’s clear that our ישועה has already begun. Hashem, in His ultimate mercy, has judged us favorably and granted us a safe haven in which to serve Him without fear from our enemies, a beginning of the redemption. But, our beracha is not complete yet, and we cannot earn the full גאולה without exercising our judgment against the test that G-d has given us. Like Avraham, we are asked to make a sacrifice, but ours is a lot less scary: Do תשובה, heed the call and return home to Eretz Yisrael. If we can use our judgment to pass this test, then, with Hashem’s help, we will merit the promise at the end of the Haftara of “רחם ארחמנו נאם ה’– I will surely take pity on them, the words of Hashem.”