I propose to examine a midrash which has been integral to formulating some of Rosh Hashanah’s most significant religious themes. This midrash is based upon a creative reading of two sets of verses, one from Psalm 119 and others from Psalm 81.
The first set of verses comes from Psalm 119, the longest chapter in the Tanakh:
89. The Lord exists forever; Your word stands firm in heaven.
90. Your faithfulness is for all generations; You have established the earth, and it stands.
91. They stand this day (hayom) to [carry out] Your rulings (mishpatekha), for all are Your servants.
There is no explicit link between these verses and the holiday of Rosh Hashanah, but a simple or pshat reading of verse 89 establishes God as the Sovereign or King of the world while verse 90 frames God as the Creator of the world, both major themes we celebrate on Rosh Hashanah. These ideas together with an interpretive reading of verse 91 seal this association.
The plain or pshat meaning of verse 91 leads us to understand that God’s servants stand in perpetual service to God’s will. This midrash, however, reads this verse differently, giving the words “hayom” and “mishpatekha”, new meaning:
Your servants stand this day (hayom), namely Rosh Hashanah, in Your (divine) judgement.
In so doing, we have established Rosh Hashanah as Yom Hamlakhat HaMelekh – the coronation of God as King; Yom Harat Olam – the day the world was created; and Yom Hadin – the day of Judgement.
The verses from Psalm 81 serve to seal the link between Yom Ha’teruah – the Day of the Sounding of the Horn and the first day of Tishre:
4. Blow the horn on the new moon, on the full moon for our feast day.
5. For it is a law for Israel, a ruling (mishpat) of the God of Jacob;
The rabbinic tradition infers from these verses that the sounding of the shofar will be on the day of the new moon which will be determined through the testimony of witnesses (in days of old). On this day, judgement over God’s creatures will be carried out..
The above interpretations are reflected in the following passage from the midrash, which serves as a source for a portion of the famous prayer for the High Holiday season – Unetaneh Tokef:
Hence, on the first day of Tishri, New Year’s Day, sentence is pronounced upon the countries of the world—those destined for war and those destined for peace, those for famine and those for plenty, those for death and those for life; on this day the lives of mortals are scrutinized to determine who is to have life and who is to have death.
The implications of this passage were an obvious concern for those who celebrate Rosh Hashanah. After all. how can one celebrate when the theme of the day is one of judgement?
On this note the midrash continues:
[This pronouncing of divine sentence on New Year’s Day is] a reminder to mankind that on New Year’s Day, the day Adam was created, [was the day he sinned and had divine sentence pronounced upon him]. In the first hour of the Day, he came into existence as a thought in God’s mind; in the second hour, God consulted the ministering angels [as to whether He should create him]; in the third hour, God gathered up the dust from which He was to make him; in the fourth, God kneaded the dust; in the fifth, God jointed the parts; in the sixth, God stood Adam up as a thing yet incomplete; in the seventh, God put the breath of life into him; in the eighth, God brought him into the Garden of Eden; in the ninth, God gave him a command; in the tenth, he transgressed the command given him; in the eleventh, he was brought to judgment; in the twelfth, he went forth from the Holy One’s presence a free man.
In this passage, the midrash incorporates the theme of Rosh Hashanah as the finishing touch on the creation of the world, together with it being the day of the sin of Adam and Havah (Eve), their trial and their acquittal. This telescoping of events served as a paradigm for the generations to see Rosh Hashanah as both the Day of Judgement and a day of hope and celebration, as noted at the end of the midrash:
The Holy One said to him: Let the fact that you go forth free be a sign for thy children. Even as you entered into My presence for judgment on this day and you were acquitted, so will your children come into My presence for judgment on this day and will be acquitted. (Based on Pesikta d’Rav Kahana 23:1)
We are left with both reason to contemplate but also to celebrate!
May we all be wrttien and enscribed for a good year.!