Rosh Hashanah: Queuing for the King
From the cold night in Edinoborough to recent days in London, it is hard to watch the queues of people waiting to pay Queen Elizabeth final respect and not be moved. Older adults, children, moms with babies, world leaders, and paupers alike all came from great distances to pay the great monarch in a line longer than 4 miles down along the Thames river. Stories of friendships formed, circles closed, identities redirected, and deep thoughts about the future all fell into place in those long hours of the queue for the Queen.
With her departure, the Queen lent a new perspective to so many on the meaning of history, service, what brings a country together, the meaning of tradition, common good, and overcoming differences in ways that were not possible during her lifetime. Sometimes it takes missing something to know what it really meant to us. No matter your position on Britain’s monarchy, the unifying spirit of the Queen drew the respect of billions worldwide.
Gathering on Rosh Hashana has us also thinking of the ways in which the collective and the individual meet. On the one hand, Rosh Hashana is the day of the greatest generality possible: it is the time the world was created, the time we announce God as King of the Universe, and a time we think of grand messianic themes and the end of times. Who does not feel awe as the prayer of Alenu is recited communally in Musaf, bowing down as we speak of God as the King of the Universe? Who cannot hear the majesty of the Shofar invoking the Shofar of Sinai and that of Mashiach’s arrival at the end of times? The universality of it all is overwhelming as we speak of a utopian time in which all nations will unite with a common vision of the common good and serving The One God Almighty.
On the other hand, Rosh Hashana is also an extraordinarily intimate day. “Like the Shephard examining each of his sheep, so too you will pass through and count every single soul,” we say in the famous U’netaneh Tokef prayer. In Mussaf, we speak of God’s knowledge of our most intimate thoughts and care for our most particular conditions: “You remember all that has been done, and even all that which is formed is not concealed from You….And No’ach too, You remembered with love, and [therefore] decreed for him a promise of deliverance and compassion” it is all about the most particular of all.
After reading the Torah, we read in the Haftorah section the story of Hannah, the barren wife who could not conceive and was finally answered on Rosh Hashanah, blessed with the famous prophet Samuel as a son. The intimacy of the moment cannot be missed. Rosh Hashanah is when God directly looks at us, how we are doing, what we were meant to do, how we have done, and how that will impact our life in the coming year.
Yet like the British coming together in mourning the life of Queen Elizabeth, the personal, communal, and national all somehow weave themselves together into some beautiful fabric.
Nothing captures this synthesis between the national and the personal as much as the verse from Deuteronomy 33 we recite on Rosh Hashana: “Vayehi biyeshurun Melech –Then [God] became King*in Jeshurun When the heads of the people assembled The tribes of Israel united. “ (Deuteronomy 33:5) The beautify of the Jewish people is that we come together, around a common good. It is when we declare God our King and when we all stand in unity that we do best. Our ability to stand together depends on our faith, and our faith depends on our ability to stand together.
The great Rabbi Avraham Ben David of Posquières, France(1120-1198), one of the greatest and earliest Kabbalists, in his famous and perhaps oldest Rosh Hashanah sermon we have today, speaks of the significance of the Shofar as a tool of Royalty. Like in all coronations of old, the new King was announced with a loud horn blast. While the Shofar is about God’s Kinghood–Malchuyot–it is also about the Shofar’s ability to invoke memories of the past. The Shofar famously evokes the memory of Abraham and the binding of Issac. Rabbi Avraham Ben David of Posquières goes on to bind the two meanings of the Shofar–that of memory and that of Kinghood–together. The Midrash (Yalkut Shimoni 645) says of the verse, “God shall be exalted with the blast (Truth) the Lord, with the sound of the shofar” (Tehilim 47) that God is exalted, through the people of Israel’s blowing the Shofar.
The Midrash goes on to compare this to the son of a King who got himself into serious legal trouble and was going to stand trial in front of his own father. The upset father then told his son that if indeed he would like to be exonerated in that trial, he would be best off hiring the father’s most beloved friend as his lawyer and his defense team. So too, the Midrash says, as the world stands trial before God on Rosh Hashanah, God commanded the Jewish people to remind him of his beloved so they too can be exonerated in trial. As we blast that very sound ushering God’s Kingship and the arrival of the new year, we do so with something that reminds God of Abraham His beloved. As those memories of not only Abraham but also Isaac and Jacob are echoed to usher in the new year, God looks at us in a different way. God’s Kingship, remembering who we are and where we came from, and coming forth into a new year with new hopes, dreams, and aspirations all come together.
When speaking of the Queen, her biographer Andrew Morton said the Queen’s greatest speech was the speech she gave two years ago, while Britain was in lockdown and the coronavirus pandemic was hitting Britain hardest. In her speech, she said: “It reminds me of the very first broadcast I made, in 1940, helped by my sister. Today, once again, many will feel a painful sense of separation from their loved ones. We should take comfort that while we may have more still to endure, better days will return: we will be with our friends again; we will be with our families again; we will meet again.” The Queen’s ability to recall the most profound crisis of all–World War II–relate her personal experience, and assure the public that this too shall pass was a beautiful combination of personal experience, precedence, national identity, and personal leadership.
As the Jewish people usher in the new year, we look at a number of challenges we have not seen in a long time. From physical attacks to attacks on who we are, from threats we face as a community, the dangers and destabilization facing the world as a whole, the challenges are immense. Yet Rosh Hashanah is an opportunity for us to do what the British did for Queen Elizabeth and what she had done for them. It is our opportunity to queue for the King, to declare God as our King, to invoke that by remembering our history, our shared patriarchs and matriarchs, by remembering our sacred mission as God’s people, and our shared destiny towards a time the entire world recognizes God Kingship we will strengthen those bonds holding us together. By standing in synagogue side by side, like those strangers standing near one another from Edinborough to London, we will discover we have so much more in common than we had thought and come together for a happier and better new year.
On a personal note, to my people, the Jewish people: we have been walking together for a few thousand years. We have overcome vast challenges in the past and will continue to do so in the future. We may not agree on everything, but we are one people. I love you all and wish each and every one of you a happy, healthy, fulfilling, safe, meaningful, and prosperous new year. Ktiva Ve’chatima Tova.