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Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur
By Yechezkel Gold
The new year holidays, Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, do more than merely
commemorating events surrounding creation. Key events of creation are
enacted each year during this period, new and original like in the first
creation, each year in its own, unique manner. Tanya describes the
previous year’s light of creation vanishing at the beginning of the
night of Rosh Hashana, and a new, unique light being elicited only with
blowing shofar during the day.
This notion of a new creation at a particular time - the beginning of
the year - is different from continual recreation, which occurs each
instant. The reason for continual recreation follows from the very
notion that there was creation. Since the world does not exist
intrinsically, its existence depends on being created, and that creation
must apply to every detail of the creation, including every instant when
it is to exist. At any “instant” when the world is not being recreated,
it simply would not exist.
The creation which occurs at the beginning of the year, though, extends
through one entire year. This is the spiritual creation. Before blowing
the shofar elicits this entirely new level of spirituality, the world is
in a state of spiritual dormancy.True, this spirituality, too, must be
continually recreated each instant, like any other element of reality.
However, the duration of this spirituality is throughout the year. This
contrasts with the creation of physical material. God generally
recreates matter in the same fashion, with identical behavior, for the
entire duration of the world. Only miracles, in which matter behaves
differently from its usual pattern, depart from this sameness.
Although matter remains essentially the same throughout the course of
the universe, perhaps changing only place and state, the spiritual
dimension of reality is renewed each year. The meaning things have for
us, our goals, hopes, understanding, the political, aesthetic, religious
dimension of life: these change from year to year.
When Rabbi Tzadok asked Elijah the Prophet what God is studying now, as
related in the Talmud, he was enquiring what is the spiritual dimension
of reality which was being played out by the events of that time.
Different historical periods have different spiritual meanings. The
spiritual, intellectual, moral character of the middle ages in the
western world, for example, was very different from both that of the
ancient world and that of modern times.
While a certain underlying unity prevails within historical periods,
clearly, development and change from one year to the next ultimately
lead to the transitions from one period to the next.
Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi explains that rather than being a gradual
development through time, these spiritual changes occur on Rosh Hashana,
jumping almost without connection from one spiritual state to thje next,
the remainder of the year being the denouement of the new spirituality
first attained en masse at the start of the year. This idea will be
further clarificated later.
The changing spiritual dimension of reality constitutes the most
important ingredient of creation. Modern materialist, scientific
ideology tends to ignore the spiritual ingredient of life, focusing our
attention on the physical as if it were what is really happening while
considering the spiritual dimension imaginary. Let us notice, though,
that materialism itself is an ideology in which we classify spirituality
as nonexistent, thereby making ourselves ignore it. To the extent we
escape that error, though, we are aware of the spiritual dimension as
being almost the entirety of reality. Matter is largely mere substratum.
Our experience - our thoughts and feelings, ideas, opinions and beliefs,
values, hopes and goals, in short, spirituality - constitutes most of
Accordingly, the spiritual jump occurring on Rosh Hashana, eliciting a
new spiritual dimension of reality, is truly the most important feature
of creation, and has as great significance and immediacy of contact with
God as at the time of Genesis.
There are significant differences between Genesis (the original creation) and Rosh Hashana.
Among them, the first creation did not have man as a partner, whereas
now, our Divine service on Rosh Hashana, including how we do in the
Divine judgment and to what extent we return to God,
determines the spirituality we elicit for the world for the coming year.
In both cases, though, creation occurred in the context of Torah.
Indeed, the Rabbis taught that Torah preceded the world.
Zohar, core book of Jewish mysticism, teaches that God “looked into the
Torah and created the world”. Generally, we take this to mean Torah is
the blueprint of creation, so that if we think and conduct ourselves
according to Torah and its Commandments, the world we live in will
reward us with happiness, peace and plenty.
Explicit passages in Torah, especially in the Book of Deuteronomy,
describe the beneficial effects for the Children of Israel of living
according to Torah, and the disastrous effects of departing from that
path. Thus, “And it shall come to pass that if you indeed heed My
Commandments which I command you today, to love the Lord your God and to
serve him with all your heart and all your soul, that I will give the
rain of your lands at the proper time, the early rain and the late rain,
and you will gather your grain and your wine and your oil. And I will
give grass in your fields for your live stock, and you shall eat and be
satisfied. Take heed to yourselves lest your heart be deceived and you
will stray and serve other gods and worship them, and God’s anger will
be aroused against you and he will restrain the heavens and there will
no rain, and the ground will not give its fruit, and you will perish
quickly from the good land which God gives you” (Deuteronomy 11).
Since the Written Torah explicitly and repeatedly emphasizes that Torah
observance determines the quality of our lives, it is puzzling that
Zohar should make pretty much the same point. It is obvious that the
Zohar must be making a much more radical statement, a statement so
revolutionary as to require esoteric insight to understand.
The Rosh Hashana prayers provide a clue to Zohar’s intent. We beseach
God: “Reign over the entire earth in Your glory, and be exalted over all
the world in Your splendor. And reveal Yourself in the majesty of Your
magnificent might over all the inhabitants of Your terrestrial world.
May everything that has been made know that You have made it...”
This prayer may seem puzzling. Is it not obvious that God already rules
all of nature? This , after all, is the significance of eighty six,
gematria (numerical value) of God’s name Elohim, being identical with
hateva, nature. The forces of nature are the way God rules the earth.
The precise wording of these sentences in the Rosh Hashana prayer
answers our question. We ask not only that God rule over the entire
earth, but that He reign in His glory, which is considerably different,
as a verse states: “For sovereignty is God’s, and He rules over the
nations.” Sovereignty and rule are two distinct concepts. In nature, God
rules but is hidden within the irresistable but repetetive course of
natural principles. His omnipotence is obscured by finite, mundane
Were God’s majesty to be revealed, though, He would reign in His glory
and be exalted in His splendor. We would not merely follow God’s will
naturally and matter-of -factly, but rather we would be awed by His
sublime majesty and do His bidding with exquisite awareness of the
privilege of serving the Holy King.
In ruling over nature, God’s greatness is not revealed very much as His
greatness is in its “own right”, but rather, as we created beings are.
In reigning in His glory, though, His sublimity is revealed more as it
is, independent of nature. This overwhelming experience brings us to
accept His majesty willingly.
To crown God King is one of the principle sections of the Rosh Hashana
liturgy. In so doing, we extricate our view of God from nature, thereby
revealing something of His glory and splendor as they are. Accepting
God’s Kingdom is our access to the realm of pure, transcendent
spirituality. Having escaped from the determined course of natural
causality, we elicit a new, unique spirituality, new each year. New
creation occurs each Rosh Hashana through this partnership of God and
Fixation on nature, of course, is very much in vogue. The ideas
mentioned here may seem somewhat disparaging to nature. Let us,
therefore, clarify some notions. When Adam sinned, he acted against his
own nature, as Ramban explains. The mystical books discuss how in
sinning, he not only fell to a far lower spiritual level, but also
plunged the creation into a spiritual abyss. Man’s striving to reenter
nature’s Garden of Eden is doomed to failure, as the account of the
expulsion in the Bible makes clear, except through living Torah, the
tree of life. Our efforts to be natural have always been a parody, an
imitation, merely what we thought “natural” is like, which is limited
and distorted by our conceptions. The sin of eating of the tree of
knowledge constrains us to live a life ruled by uninspired and
incomplete, wrong thought. It suffices to mention the excesses of the
natural food and exercise fads, the hippies’ “back to the land”, and the
“evolutionary survival of the fittest” exterminations by the "master
race” to convince ourselves of our falacies in imitating nature.
Moreover, nature has decay and suffering as well as health and vigor.
Our appreciation of the magnificence and joy of nature does not come
directly from branches waving in the wind and snow-capped peaks. It
comes from elevating our spirits so we can perceive God’s splendor and
glory through these glories of nature. As long as our minds are cramped
within the paradigm of nature and causality, pragmatism and selfishness,
we are blind to nature’s splendor. Only freeing our minds from the sin
of the tree of knowledge opens our eyes to the awe and exhiliration of
transcendent spirituality. In the process, the creation, too, is
elevated to its rightful place, revealing God’s magnificent might in its
own right, independent of nature so “everything that has been made will
know that You have made it”.
This does not disqualify using intellect. As is well known, living Torah
means vigorous intellectual activity. Rather, it means liberating the
mind from the shackles of materialist determinism and its corollary,
Thus, it means Torah study in Torah’s terms, not seeking validation,
confirmation and understanding from the mundane. It means living the
Torah of life, with “life” meaning and being Torah, rather than merely
applying Torah to life. As the verse in Proverbs (13) states: “The Torah
of the wise man is the source of life”.
This transcendent link to God begins through crowning Him King on Rosh
Hasahana . This beginning is very general: eliciting a new transcendent
spirituality and breaking the shackles of materialist thinking and
rising to contact with Ein Sof, God’s eternal infinity, through the
haunting, evocative sound of the shofar and through uncompromising
commitment to God.
This direct encounter with God, the Ein Sof, with infinity, by turning
away from involvement with mundane life so that the boundaries of
worldly considerations, such as reason, practicality, involvements, and
selfishness no longer apply and are rendered insignificant, is scheduled
for only once per year because though this renewal brings fresh vitality
into the world, it is too powerful to sustain. Having glimpsed how holy
our lives can be, we must - we feel ethically obligated to actualize
this inspired experience within the bounds of material.
This process is completed on Yom Kippur, the anniversary of God’s giving
the Torah again, giving the second set of the tablets of the Law, having
forgiven Israel for the sin of the golden calf. It means earnestly
undertaking to live the reality of the Commandments of the King’s Torah
in the King’s, in Torah's terms, rather than in mundane terms. This
transcendent, unconditional absorption in Torah as reality reveals life
- the reality of the creation - as the holy reality it truly is, instead
of the banality of materialism. Torah in its own terms is God’s
connection with the world. Centered on Torah as the determinant of
reality, the creation retains the presence and revelation of the Divine
Creator instead of plunging into the abyss of materialism. As Zohar
stated: “He looked into Torah and created the world.” The world,
reality, is really Torah.
Yom Kippur, of course, has other sides besides being the anniversary of
receiving the second tablets of the Law. It is the day of admitting our
sins and atonement for our shortcomings. The sages taught that the
verdict for our coming year is inscribed on Rosh Hashana and sealed on
Yom Kippur. Yom Kippur is also associated with the Jubilee and,
ultimately, with the final redemption.
To understand more fully the relationship between the succession of
mundane creation, Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, let us bring the Midrash
in Yalkut Shimoni on Psalms 33: The harp in the Temple had seven
strings. In the days of Messiah, it will have eight strings, and in the
future time, it will have ten strings.
The mundane creation before the redemption, the world of nature, is
associated with the number seven. Thus, creation was performed in seven
days. (After all, God could have performed the entire creation in one
instant, too, as stated in Ethics of the Fathers: “Is it not so that it
(the world) could have been created in one day?)
The number eight represents a level above creation, just as the number
eight itself is one more than seven. It represents a reality not
encumbered by the principles of the creation but rather, dominating
that creation, just as a king reigns supreme in his dominion. Maharal
discusses this significance of the number eight. Chassidic thought
speaks of Rosh Hashana, the first day of the month of Tishrai too, as
being a level above the creation. It is not the start of creation, but a
level above, from which the start of creation might issue.
Messiah, too, will be at a level above creation, and dominate it in the
name of God. He will be a king. But he will also be a man, a creation
which rose above being just a creation.
Though eight represents rising above the mundane, it is not ultimate
perfection. There is a still higher level, number ten. This number,
too, signifies contact with the Divine above the mundane, but in a
different manner than the number eight. Ten relates to Yom Kippur, on
the tenth day of Tishre.
The difference between eight and ten can be understood by analogy to a
Cabalistic elucidation of the ceremony of havdala marking the end of
Sabbath and distinguishing the holy Sabbath from the profane weekdays.
In the course of havdala, we recite a blessing over fire, looking at the
lines of our hands and at our fingernails by the light of a multi-wicked
candle. Rabbi Moshe Cordovero explained that the lines of the hand and
the finger nails signify growth and change. For that reason we look at
the nails on the outer surface of the hand. The outer surface represents
the capacity to initiate growth and change whereas the inner surface,
representing the inner aspect, does not initiate growth.
The inner aspect is soft and sensitive, signifying satisfaction,
awareness and mind. It is stable or changes only gradually, maintaining
contact and continuity with the reality of which it is aware, and with
what makes sense. The outer aspect, coarser and less soft and sensitive,
signifies less awareness. As such, it is not so mindful of what makes
sense or is continuous. This very liability, though, enables it to break
connection with present circumstances and leap to a different situation,
to rise above the mundane to achieve new and higher levels. After
attaining the soft and sensitive, stable and restful perfection of the
previous week, the seventh day, Sabbath, havdala marks the leap to the
next challenge, which begins as a profane weekday. It is the eight
rising above the seven.
Similarly, the leap to the new year, Rosh Hashana, is the outer aspect.
Unlike the leap to the new week, though, Rosh Hashana is a leap to an
entirely new reality. Hence, the leap itself is a holy day. It is a
supreme act of will, of overcoming all resistance and escaping the
boundaries of the mundane, accepting the infinite God as King.
Once that leap has been accomplished, once contact has been made with
Divine reality, work begins on developing the inner aspect of that new
reality, of rendering what is a challenging overcoming of obstacles a
stable, sensitive, new awareness. The number ten signifies this higher
awareness. What was previously merely inscribing - and therefore
susceptible to change - on Rosh Hashana becomes sealed and permanent on
Yom Kippur. Beyond unconditional commitment to God as King and to His
Commandments, one achieves the insight and sensitive awareness to
maintain contact with the sacred realm. This is through Torah, through
understanding the Divine reality in Torah which determines all of
reality. The ultimate stabilization of the Divine Presence in the
creation is the final Jubilee, the final redemption.
In crowning the King, we overcome our own shortcomings to rise to the
occasion. Once we have glimpsed that awareness, it can remain with us
only if we have the sensitivity to internalize it. Denying and
overcoming what we are is a way to come to greater heights.
Acknowledging what we are is a way to remain there. Our insight must
take full account of our own faults, the work of Yom Kippur. We fast to
face the full reality. This seems frightening, but as the sages said in
the Mishna: “There were no better days for Israel than... Yom Kippur.”
Only in that manner we truly have atonement and remain with the King.
from the October High Holiday 2000 Edition of the Jewish Magazine
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