Rosh Hashana (tran. “head of the year”) is about getting one’s life together. Of course, a person can do that at any time. But human nature is such that we generally need some prodding and structure to get moving. Going to school has this effect on people. Couldn’t we just read books and do homework? Schools force us to open the books. Schools also provide us with teachers who work with us individually to open our minds. Naturally, I am speaking about good schools and teachers.
So how does Rosh Hashana accomplish all of this? Firstly, Rosh Hashana occurs about the same time every year. On the Jewish calendar, it is the 1st day of the month of Tishrei. This translates to a day in September or October on the Gregorian calendar, the one used almost exclusively throughout the world to organize civil affairs. On any given year, the day is fixed on that calendar too.
On that day, we recognize publicly and privately the kingship of God in the world. Now, the word king may not sound comfortable to the Western, particularly the American ear, and we'll discuss that in a moment. Let me say for now that the blowing of the shofar is meant to resemble a king’s trumpet. It serves to announce the arrival of the king. Also, the prayer service contains three special passages that discuss G-d’s kingship.
The principle at play here is that a person’s life goes better when lived with an awareness of God. Goals and role models are essential for personal achievement. As the basketball player Michael Jordan says, “Always focus on what you are trying to achieve.” God represents the super ideal of love, intelligence, self-discipline, compassion, integrity, and every other positive virtue. Setting ideas of God foremost in our minds, establishes for us ideals by which to live our lives.
In this way of thinking, a king is an ideal. We usually think of a king as a military and political ruler of a country. Such a person has worldly power but may be a spiritual disaster area. The word king contains positive associations as well. The “King of Rock n’ Roll” is a complementary term as it denotes creativity and excellence in performance of that brand of music. Similarly, a man of fine character is often described as a prince. The Kings of Israel such as David and Saul were men of extraordinary piety, bravery, and intelligence. Their kingship included leadership in the most positive of veins. The recognition of G-d as king of the world is intended to convey the idea of king as ideal.
Another aspect of God’s kingship is power. Before the advent of democracies, a relatively recent form of political organization, kings ruled countries. They generally held the power of life and death over the residents of a country. The recognition of God as king of the world eases some of our worldly fears. As the security guard at one of my old jobs used to say to me, “If God is with me, it doesn’t matter if the whole world is against me.” The power of worldly kings and worldly anything is something of an illusion. God allows them to appear as powerful. This is a major component of the system of free choice whose proper navigation is one of our primary purposes in life. I shall leave that discussion for another time. Our crowning of God as king lessens our fear of the things we so often fear: the whims of our bosses, the approval of the neighbors, crime, sickness, and loneliness. These matters seem to threaten our security and happiness and we lose ourselves in our fear of them. We respond with a variety of unhealthy acts such as thievery, self-aggrandizement, worry, and anger. We may try to buy off our villains by trading in our true thoughts and feelings for theirs. If God holds all real power, then we need not do any of that.
The other famous aspect of the day – judgment – works with all of these issues. On Rosh Hashana, God judges the world and each individual in it. To borrow a verse from a song, “He knows if you’ve been bad or good so be good for goodness sake.” As a driving test reveals our skill as drivers of cars, the judgment on Rosh Hashana reveals our skills as drivers of ourselves. Are we kind, disciplined, faithful, or honest? These matters are brought to light on Rosh Hashana. Our knowledge that they will be brought to light, forces us to work on them before hand and to establish new goals for their attainment in the coming year.
Some people find the length of the service to be overwhelming. I’ll tell you quite frankly that the prayer service is only one component of the day. The recognition of God and the evaluation of ourselves is the main thing. If you feel you disinclined to attend the whole service, don’t worry about it. Try to catch the big items such as the blowing of the shofar or some piece of it, the three utterances, and some general prayer. The Shema and the Amida are the biggest components of that. I hope to discuss them at another time. Being part of a community, achieved through some attendance in synagogue, is another nice accomplishment for the day. I hope to discuss the value of community (and I say community not conformity) at some other time as well.