Of the 63 tractates of Talmud, one is bestowed the illustrious title “Rosh Hashana.”
The eager student to crack open the text and reveal the essence of the day will undoubtedly feel quickly deflated and confused by the opening lines of the tractate, “There are four new years…”
Suddenly our conception of Rosh Hashana, a new year, is diluted by a series of dates bearing that title during the year. A quick survey of the list includes save-the-date reminders to count livestock and trees, the length of a king’s reign and the starting point of the holiday cycle. While our familiar Rosh Hashana on the first of the month of Tishrei does make the list, it is dimly characterized as the day that we move forward a digit in counting our years and mark deadlines for agricultural cycles. Yes, it is the beginning of a calendar year, but the meaning of our Rosh Hashana is elusive.
The text lures us back again with another association. “During four points in the year, the world is judged.” Sitting up a bit for this next list, with an alert sensation that mimics the beeping sound of a car when speed traps are up ahead, the Mishna presents a list of times throughout the year where God’s judgment is administered, “…and on Rosh Hashana, people themselves pass before God” with the Mishna citing the verse in Psalms (33:15), “He who fashions their hearts, discerns all of their actions.”
Between these two texts we begin to gather the identity of Rosh Hashana. It is presented as both the day that humanity was formed and our years began to tick, but also the day when Divine Judgement is administered over us, His very human creations.
Maimonides highlights the dissonance and intensity of these ideas. Rosh Hashana as the Day of Judgement determining sickness and health, life and death and all of the other states of self, in Maimonides words, its essence is “very difficult.” (Maimonides Commentary to Mishna, RH 1:2)
How do we respond to this looming sense of judgement on Rosh Hashana? While repentance is a vibrant concept during this season, on Rosh Hashana itself there is no confession or pounding of our chest. The unique mitzvah of Rosh Hashana is the sounding of the shofar. A simple primal cry of the day, laden with historical associations and evocative resonance. It prompts images of the ram’s horn caught in the thicket to replace the defenseless Isaac from his father Abraham’s religious quest for sacrifice, the national call to arms, the musical accompaniment as God and Moses ascend Mount Sinai in a unique moment of forgiveness and intimacy to forge a renewed covenant and second set of tablets, service in the Temple of Jerusalem and as a musical articulation echoing the cries of a nameless mother coming to understand that her military son will not return home- and the list continues. The shofar captures the very vulnerability of the human condition.
When the Talmud defines which animal horns may be used, it insists on avoiding items associated with the sin of the golden calf, a high standard otherwise reserved to censuring the use of gold by the High Priest in his service in the Holy of Holies. It is decided that no bull horn may be used on Rosh Hashana as our sages explain that the shofar triggers our memories in a way that creates an experience that is uniquely intimate. The sounding of the shofar in that very moment is as if each of us is standing within the Holy of Holies with God. (Babylonian Talmud, Rosh Hashana 26a)
Yes, Rosh Hashana is a Day of Judgement, but it is not focused on our relationship with our deeds and misdeeds. On Rosh Hashana we stand before the Divine Presence on the very day of our creation in His image in an embracing closeness. We sense what it means to be fragile and yet resilient in God’s Presence. We emerge elevated, not only by having stood before the Glory of the King, but also next to the Parent who is close, forgiving and supportive. We pray that the primal sounds and memories touch us, our community, nation and the entire world. Rosh Hashana is an encounter with God that awakens an intimacy that leaves us transformed to go out and live another year.