by Rabbi Yisrael Kaniel – September 5, 2010
In Vayikra 23:24-25, G-d tells us: “In the seventh month [Tishre] on the first of the month, you shall have a day of rest, a memorial of blowing of horns, a holy convocation. You shall do no work…” Rosh Hashana – the only holiday that lasts for two consecutive days in the Land of Israel as well as in the diaspora – we are told is a day of rest in which all forms of labor are prohibited as on Sabbath except for a few exceptions. In addition, we are advised that on these days of Rosh Hashana the shofar should be blown.
The New Year of our people is not one wherein we go to bars to drink liquor and whiskey or to public areas to dance and listen to bands playing. The New Year of our people – Rosh Hashana – is a holy day. The holy day of Rosh Hashana, our Sages explain, is a time of judgement for all of humanity.
Human beings, throughout the year, are saddled with many responsibilities. They do not always have the necessary time to contemplate their actions, beliefs and attitudes and their consequences. In setting aside the holiday of Rosh Hashana during which labor is not permitted, G-d has apportioned a period of time during which one can, through prayer and study, survey and examine one’s deeds and attitudes, and, through proper behavior and notions, can alter them for the better.
On this holiday of Rosh Hashana, G-d enjoins us to blow the shofar. By hearing the sound of the shofar, we are reminded of the great act of devotion to G-d of our forefather, Abraham. Abraham, our Sages tell us, observed all of G-d’s precepts to the smallest detail (Babylonian Talmud, Yoma 28b). Abraham recognized the ultimate truth in G-d’s word. Even when Abraham was commanded by G-d to bind and sacrifice his only son Isaac as a burnt offering, he was ready to oblige. After raising the knife, at the very last moment, Abraham heard a voice calling, “Lay not your hand upon the lad” (Bereshit 22:12). At that moment, Abraham, instead of his son, sacrificed a ram. The sound of the ram’s horn reminds us of this act of Abraham and his devotion to G-d, and, thereby, awakens us. The ram’s horn should, by reminding us of Abraham, awaken our sense of devotion to G-d, our sense of obligation to Him and our recognition of the truth in His divine words.
In the Musaf services of Rosh Hashana, we acknowledge in our prayers that: “Man comes from dust and ends in dust…He is like the potsherd that breaks, the grass that withers, the flower that fades, the shadow that passes, the cloud that vanishes, the breeze that blows, the dust that floats, the dream that flies away.”
Abraham recognized the fleeting nature of our lives. All of us are destined to die after a certain number of years. When we do, what will we have to show for our lives? What will we bring with us to the World to Come? We will not bring our professions with us. We will not bring our beautifully decorated home or our comfortable plush chair. We will only have our souls. But we must feed our souls. We are told that the key to our future lies in “tshuva (repentence), tefilla (prayer) and tzedaka (charity)”. We must feed our souls with a renewed resolve towards the observance of G-d’s laws, towards heartfelt prayers to our Creator and towards caring for our fellow Jew. Otherwise, when we die we will continue to exist in spiritual hunger and endless spiritual pain.
During Rosh Hashana, we are given the opportunity to take time from our regular daily schedule to carefully contemplate our deeds and beliefs, and, spurred on by the sound of the shofar and the example of Abraham’s devotion, to resolve to behave properly and entertain proper notions and walk in the path that G-d leads us. If we take this opportunity, sincerely and truthfully, then, and only then, can we hope for a good year, a good life and a good eternity.