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Rosh Hashana | The Central Idea of Rosh HaShana

Updated: Apr 21, 2020

Rosh HaShana is almost upon us, and so this week instead of looking at the parsha, I would like to reflect on Rosh HaShana. Our Sages teach us that before every festival we need to prepare and get into the right frame of mind. We cannot just walk into shul on Rosh HaShana night and expect to be inspired. We need to prepare in advance, to think about what we are meant to be doing on Rosh HaShana; to go through the Machzor and review the prayers to get the maximum meaning and power from the day and from our time in shul.

G-d’s kingship and judgment What is Rosh HaShana really about? On the one hand it is a Day of Judgment. On the other, there is a major theme which begins with Rosh HaShana and runs through Yom Kippur: the kingship of Hashem. If you look through the prayers of the Machzor, the translations and the commentaries thereon, you will see that the kingship of Hashem takes centre stage. What does it mean that G-d is King, and why is Rosh HaShana, the Day of Judgment, designated as the day for proclaiming G-d’s kingship?

Rosh HaShana actually commemorates and celebrates a certain day in history. It is, as we say in our prayers, hayom harat olam, “the day the world was created.” But our Sages explain more specifically that it is the anniversary of the creation of human beings. Rosh HaShana is celebrated every year on the anniversary of the creation of Adam and Eve, on the sixth day of creation. When we say “today the world was created” we are referring to the world of human beings; each person is an entire world – as the Mishnah says, to destroy one life is to destroy a whole world, and to save one life is to save a whole world. What does Rosh HaShana being the anniversary of the creation of the first human beings have to do with the kingship of G-d?

There is no king without a nation The Maharal of Prague explains that G-d only became King on the day that Adam and Eve were created. Hashem has many attributes; He is the Creator, all-powerful, all-knowing, eternal. All of G-d’s attributes – which, of course, are beyond our comprehension – are not dependent on us. But there is one dimension of Hashem which is dependent on us and that is His kingship; as the Talmudic Sages put it, ain melech belo am, “there is no King without a nation.” A king cannot be king unless there are people who recognise him as king. Thus G-d was the Creator, the all-powerful and all-knowing – he was all of these things before Adam and Eve were created, but He was not King. Only when Adam and Eve were created, as human beings with free will to choose to accept Hashem as their King, did G-d become King.

Rosh HaShana is the anniversary of the creation of Adam and Eve but it is also the anniversary of when G-d became King. This is why, says the Maharal, it is a Day of Judgment. Obviously, being the day of creation of human beings, it is a good time to reflect on humanity and an appropriate time for judgment. But justice and judgment are part of the manifestation of G-d’s kingship; they are part of a king’s tasks, the judiciary branch of the government.

Furthermore, says the Maharal, to forgive and to pardon is also part of G-d’s kingship because only the king can grant a royal pardon. This is what Yom Kippur is about, when we ask G-d for forgiveness. Rosh HaShana and Yom Kippur are about judgment and forgiveness but the uniting theme of these ten days is the kingship of Hashem, when we crown him as King of the world.

G-d’s authority is a prerequisite to keeping the commandments

Rosh HaShana is the day we coronate Hashem. What does it mean to crown G-d as King?

The Shema which we say twice every day has two main parts, the opening verse Shema Yisrael “Hear O Israel, the Lord our G-d, the Lord is One” and the first paragraph, and then we have the second paragraph Vehaya im shamoa, “Behold if you will listen to My commandments,” which sets out the principles of reward and punishment. The Mishnah in Berachot, page 13a, says that these two paragraphs represent two concepts and the one must come before the other. In the first paragraph we accept Malchut Shamayim, the kingship of heaven, upon us. In the second paragraph we accept responsibility to keep His commandments. The Mishnah says this is why the first paragraph comes before the second; before we can talk about His commandments, we have to accept the authority of the One Who commands. Keeping Torah means not only keeping the 613 commandments, but more than that, it is about acknowledging that Hashem is King and that He has authority over our lives. There is a relationship we have with G-d that is outside of the commandments. The commandments are obviously very important—in fact, on Rosh HaShana we’re judged on whether we have been observing them. But equally important is the acceptance of the authority of Hashem and the fact that He is King. This concept stands independently, not just as the logical prerequisite to keeping the commandments. On the very first Commandment Anochi Hashem Elokecha, “I am the Lord your G-d,” Maimonides comments that it is a commandment to believe in Hashem. There is a famous debate between him and Nachmanides, who says it is actually not a commandment but a statement of fact; if you believe in Hashem, you don’t need to be commanded and if you don’t believe in Him, how can you be commanded to? Either way we interpret this verse, it is establishing a concept which goes beyond the level of commandment, even according to Maimonides. The fact that Hashem is King is the foundation upon which the Torah stands.

Acknowledging Hashem as King is the foundation of everything The longest Amidah we have is the Mussaf of Rosh HaShana, which has three components, one of which is Malchiyot, kingship, referring to the kingship of Hashem. In the Malchiyot section there are ten verses about the kingship of Hashem quoted from different books in the Bible. The Gemara in Tractate Rosh HaShana, page 32a, asks why specifically ten verses are quoted. Three answers are given and from these answers we can better understand what Hashem’s kingship is.

The first answer is from Rav Levi, who says that the ten verses referring to the kingship of Hashem correspond to the ten praises that King David said in the well-known chapter in Psalms, haleluhu b’teka shofar, which contains ten praises of Hashem. Rav Yosef says the ten verses correspond to the Ten Commandments whereas Rabbi Yochanan says that the ten verses correspond to the ten statements with which the world was created. In these three opinions lies the answer to the question of what Hashem’s kingship means.

The corresponding to the Ten Commandments represents that we have to keep His commandments because He is the King and He has given us commandments to fulfil. The other aspect of Hashem being King goes beyond just the commandments and that is the fact that as King He governs this world and is intimately involved with this world and how we lead our lives, what is called hashgacha pratit which means personal supervision. G-d is interested in what happens to every one of us, every single day; he guides events even down to the smallest detail. Hashgacha pratit is beyond our comprehension; Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan once gave the following analogy by way of explanation: it is like a grand master playing chess, for example in chess exhibition matches where he can be playing 50 people or a hundred people at once and is moving from board to board, moving all the chess pieces. So too G-d, so to speak, is playing billions of chess games all the time and all over the world (obviously we are only using human analogies to get some sort of comprehension, though it is something beyond our human understanding) so even though we have free choice, like in chess you have free choice, nevertheless Hashem is watching every board every piece and every move. This idea is reflected in Rav Levi’s opinion that the ten verses correspond to the ten praises that King David sang to Hashem. King David had a hard life and had many trials and tribulations. He had to run away from King Saul, he lost a child, and he had another child who staged a rebellion against him; he had to fight many battles for the Jewish People. He had a very difficult life and yet he was so bonded to Hashem that he sang praises to him – in fact, King David wrote the Book of Psalms, where he pours out his heart to Hashem with complete faith and belief in Him. King David always maintained an emotional and spiritual connection to Hashem, no matter what was going on in his life. The ten verses of kingship corresponding to the ten verses of praise in that chapter of Psalms represents that G-d being King means not just that we fulfil His commandments, but that He is involved in our lives and that He watches everything that happens. We praise Him for the good and for the bad, for the sweet and the bitter, because we know that ultimately everything is for the good and He is governing this world with justice and goodness.

Rabbi Yochanan’s opinion is that the ten verses referring to G-d’s kingship correspond to the ten statements with which He created the world. If you look in the beginning of Genesis, you will see many statements with which Hashem created the world – “and G-d said, ‘let there be light,’’’ etc. These ten statements are actually part of the blueprint of creation. The Mishnah in Pirkei Avot in the beginning of Chapter Five says that He created the world with ten statements to reward the righteous who sustain it and to punish the wicked who destroy it. What does this mean?

Torah is a unifying force

The Maharal explains that the number ten represents two concepts: unity and disparity. Number ten is not a new number, but a number that brings together the other nine. There are only nine unique numbers; eleven is just ten plus one. Ten represents and the unity that G-d brings to a world of disparity. G-d’s Torah – the blueprint – is what unifies the world. When we look at the world, it seems to have so many disparate, separate elements; it is often fragmented. But there is one unifying force in the world and that is Hashem and His Torah which is the blueprint. His kingship means that every aspect of creation fits into His blueprint. The Torah is not religion that is divorced from our every-day lives, that only occupies a certain part of our world. It contains everything. To acknowledge that G-d is King of the world does not mean simply to acknowledge that we must keep His commandments or that we see His hand in our daily lives. It means that His will and His thoughts expressed in His Torah actually have relevance and application to every aspect of creation. This is what it means to be a King. Sovereignty is not divisible; a sovereign government means they are sovereign over every aspect of what takes place in the country. Hashem has sovereignty over every aspect of what takes place in the world and His Torah is the blueprint which holds it all together.

The kingship of Hashem is a broad and fundamental concept upon which Judaism is premised. On Rosh HaShana we stand before Hashem in judgment. From Rosh HaShana to Yom Kippur we are introspecting, trying to look at what we have done wrong and how we can do right, how we can fix our sins – both sins between us and our fellow human beings and sins between us and Hashem. We look for ways of fixing and improving but the whole time the overarching theme is that we do so under the kingship of Hashem. Rosh HaShana is about crowning G-d as King over every aspect of life.

I would like to take this opportunity to wish everybody a ketiva vachatima tova, may we be written and sealed for a shana tova umetuka, for a good and sweet year filled with Hashem’s abundant blessings.

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