David Harbater
Author, educator and scholar

Is Rosh Hashanah really a holiday of ‘awe’?

There is something bizarre about the holiday of Rosh Hashanah. Since it marks the new year, a new beginning, it is, for most of us, a time of anticipation and excitement. Furthermore, although the davening (prayer) is longer than usual, the synagogues tend to fill up with far more people than the numbers that typically frequent them during the year. During the services, the sound of the melodies reverberate throughout the sanctuary and the synagogue halls and we are inspired and uplifted. At home, we join family and friends for festive meals replete with special challot, apples dipped in honey, and an array of new fruit meant to symbolize our hopes and prayers for a good and healthy year. Thus, Rosh Hashanah is widely a day of celebration and joy, not trepidation and fear as the title “Days of Awe” by which the High Holidays are known would seem to suggest. Is there something wrong with us for feeling this way?

The Mishnah in Rosh Hashanah (1:2) states that “At four times (of the year) the world is judged…. on Rosh Hashana, all creatures pass before Him like sheep [benei maron], as it is stated: “He Who fashions their hearts alike, Who considers all their deeds” (Psalms 33:15).” If Rosh Hashanah is, in fact, the day God judges us for our actions throughout the year, as the Rabbis here claim, then perhaps trepidation and awe are called for. Furthermore, throughout the holiday we highlight God’s power and kingship, which are meant to deepen our awareness that our lives hang in the balance. Thus, it would appear that, on such an occasion, joy and celebration are both inappropriate and misguided.

I believe that the tension between these two conceptions and experiences of Rosh Hashanah is best understood when we recognize that it reflects a tension within the nature of God Himself. In describing God at the time of creation, the Midrash tells us:

“To what is this likened? A king who had empty glasses. The king said, “If I put hot water in them, then they will expand and break, and if I put cold water in them, they will contract and shatter.” What did the king do? He mixed hot water with the cold water and put the mixture in the glasses. So too the Holy One, blessed be He, said: If I create the world with the attribute of compassion alone, no one would be concerned with the consequences of their actions. With the attribute of judgment alone, how could the world stand? Rather, behold, I create it with both the attribute of judgment and the attribute of compassion, and hopefully it will stand. (Bereishit Rabbah, 12)

Although God Himself is one, He has multiple dimensions and characteristics that are, at times, in tension with one another. As “the Lord,” He is kind and compassionate, but as “God,” He is strict and demanding, which begs the question, how can they both coexist in the creation of the world? If He is to create the world as “the Lord,” reflecting middat harahamim (the attribute of compassion), people will not be held accountable for their actions. But if He is to create the world as “God,” reflecting middat hadin (the attribute of judgment), how will the world survive, given the human propensity toward sin? Thus, God decided to create the world by carefully balancing both dimensions of Himself in the hope that the world will be able to stand. In other words, the multifaceted God conducts the affairs of humankind by combining, in a way incomprehensible to us, two contradictory aspects of Himself.

Against this background, we can understand why throughout the High Holiday service, we refer to God as Avinu Malkenu (our Father, our King). Since this is such a common motif in Jewish prayer, we often fail to notice that these two titles are, for the most part, polar opposites. A father is typically loving, kind, caring, and forgiving, whereas a king tends to be distant, demanding, strict, and unforgiving. How then can we refer to God as both? The answer is that unlike human beings, who are either one or the other, God is, indeed, both.

What is even more remarkable is that at times, we play one off the other to serve our own interests, much as children do to their parents. Thus, in the Rosh Hashanah prayers, we recite the following:

“On this day, the world came into being; On this day, He makes all the creatures of the worlds stand in judgment, whether as children or as servants. If as children, have compassion on us as a father has compassion on his children! If as servants, our eyes are fixed on You until You favor us, and bring forth our judgment as the light, Revered and Holy One!”

God judges the world on Rosh Hashanah both as a parent and as a king. We therefore turn to Him first as children asking our father for compassion and then as servants appealing to our king. In this way, we hope to secure a favorable judgment.

Based upon the above, we can understand why, despite the fact that Rosh Hashanah is a day of “awe” in which God, our king, judges us for our actions throughout the year, we hope and believe that God, our father, will remember us in mercy, forgive us for our sins and allow us to start anew with a clean slate. And this, in my view, is reason enough for joy and celebration.

About the Author
Rabbi Dr. David Harbater's recently published book "In the Beginnings: Discovering the Two Worldviews Hidden within Genesis 1-11" is available on Amazon and at book stores around Israel and the US. He teaches Bible and Jewish thought at Midreshet Torah V'Avodah, at the Amudim Seminary, and at the Women's Beit Midrash of Efrat. Make sure to follow him on Facebook and LinkedIn for more interesting content.
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