I confess I spent my formative years mixed up about the main theme of Rosh Hashanah. I thought it was all about teshuvah (repentance) alone. It took me till adulthood to understand that it is also fundamentally about crowning God as King. To this day, if you ask people what Rosh Hashanah is about, they might say, the start of the year, being written into the Book of Life, repentance, but might skip the coronation of God.
I assume this is because we spend the entire month of Elul focusing on teshuvah, and then we have the “10 days of teshuvah” starting on Rosh Hashanah itself and culminating in the Day of Atonement Yom Kippur — so it is the dominant theme of the season.
But, also, it is not a theme that is obviously connected to crowning a king. And indeed we could ask – “ha-yelchu shneyhem yachdav” (shall the two walk together)? How do the themes of teshuvah and coronation dwell together when they seem very far apart? Teshuvah is a cleansing and a return to self. It is an intimate quiet process, undertaken far from the public gaze. A coronation is the exact opposite. It is done in pomp and circumstance, “berov am hadrat melech,” in the presence of multitudes. Aren’t these two very different things? Why are they forcibly squashed together on the same day?
A possible answer lies in the fact that we don’t stand before the king as faceless undifferentiated subjects. In the weekly portion read before Rosh Hashanah, Moses insists “Atem nitzvavim” (Deut. 29:9-10): you stand here today, all of you – whether leaders, children, or lowly workers, every single person – to enter the covenant with God. We come on Rosh Hashanah as differentiated individuals; as known and trusted servants; as beloved children. At a coronation ceremony of earthly kings and queens, faceless subjects can stand in their thousands and nobody cares what they think or whether they have a relationship with the regal personage. They are like those computer-generated masses you see in movie battle scenes – thousands of orcs, all the same as each other, by the grace of CGI.
But we are not orcs (you can quote me on that). We pass before God one by one, as sheep before a shepherd, who knows each animal. We don’t address God as “malkenu,” our King, we say “avinu malkenu,” our Father, our King. Our inner state of mind is very important. When we do teshuvah and return to a clean, clear self, our true self, this must also strengthen our relationship with God and help us crown our King from the greatest depths of love and awe we can achieve. Without teshuvah, we crown God from fear, distance, and alienation.
This how teshuvah and coronation are intrinsically connected. Our inner, personal, quiet, repentance actually makes all the difference in the coronation of the Creator of the World.
This is a powerful thought. But then we are left with a burning question. Why, you may ask, why does the process of teshuvah not culminate on Rosh Hashanah? In fact, why don’t we have Yom Kippur before Rosh Hashanah, so as to arrive at the coronation on as high a level as possible?
I think we can learn here from Esther. When Mordechai tells her to go to Achashverosh and entreat for her people (Esther 4:8), she objects that entering the inner court uninvited carries the death penalty, and she’s not been called for thirty days. One Purim, I was nosily looking at the megillah of the person next to me at megillah reading. It was a children’s megilla that cited a midrash that when Esther entered unbeckoned, Achashverosh was at first furious – but then, the next moment, he suddenly remembered how much he loved her, and his anger subsided completely.
We know that references in the scroll of Esther to “the king,” with no name, hint to the King of Kings. Taking that view, I think we are all Esther and that on Rosh Hashanah, we might feel “How can I go into the King? We’ve not communicated recently. Our relationship is not strong. I’ve not been called to come for many days.” So we hesitate to enter; maybe we’re even afraid. But we need to know that if we just take courage and enter, no matter what state our relationship is in, God will be unable to resist, but will instantly fall again in love with our beautiful souls.
And supporting this idea, the Tur notes that the word “uvechen” (“and thus”) a recurring word from the Rosh Hashanah liturgy, is taken from the exact verse where Esther takes upon herself to go to the king though she may be killed for it “And thus I will go to the king…and if I perish, I perish” (Esther 4:16).
So that’s why we can go in to the King on Rosh Hashanah even if we’re still in the middle of the teshuvah process; even if we’ve barely begun. Because we do not need to be perfect, or called, or close. The main thing is that we go in. And it is important that after Rosh Hashanah come further days for repentance. Because it is precisely this experience, of coming into the King, which will give us strength to continue to do teshuvah for the coming days. And Yom Kippur comes after we’ve reaffirmed that God is our King and we are God’s people. Because you can’t do teshuvah without making things right with God.
As I get older, I accept that life is a process. Wherever on the journey I am, I am. Some years I feel closer to God, some years more distant. Yet there is always a place in the inner court, for me, and for you, for all of us. No one is faceless; we are all beloved and known. And we can draw strength and joy from that, and channel that back into our teshuvah as we move on to Yom Kippur.