Rabbi Ephraim Sprecher, Dean of Students and Senior Lecturer at Diaspora Yeshiva, is not only a popular speaker and teacher, but also a dynamic thinker and writer. A student of Harav Yaakov Kamenetsky and Harav Gedalia Schorr, Rabbi Sprecher was granted smicha (rabbinical ordination) by Torah Vodaath Yeshiva. Prior to his current position, Rabbi Sprecher was a professor of Judaic studies at Touro College in New York. In addition to his duties at Diaspora Yeshiva, Rabbi Sprecher writes a regular column on various Judaic topics in the Jewish Press, and lectures regularly at the OU Israel Center in Jerusalem.
Rosh Hashana's Paradox: On Trial Or On Parade?
Published: Sunday, August 26, 2012 10:03:24 AM
Number of views: 4832

In the Torah, Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year is called yom trua (a day of blowing the trumpets; Numbers 29:1). Although trumpets are generally sounded on joyous occasions, here the trumpet or, more specifically the shofar (ram's horn) signifies a solemn holiday, when we are all put on trial, we all stand before the supreme Judge, G-d. This trial continues for 10 days until Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement).

On Rosh Hashana, according to the Mishnah (Tractate Rosh Hashana), "all inhabitants of the earth pass before Him [G-d] like sheep (kivnei maron)." Our heavenly Shepherd, G-d, counts each and every one of us, determining what our fate will be in the coming year. This statement is the basis of the well-known piyyut (sacred poem), "unetaneh tokef," which is recited in the synagogue on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, and includes the moving words "Who will live and who will die, who will rest and who will continually wander."

Obviously, Rosh Hashana doesn't appear to be a joyous holiday: How can we rejoice if we are passing under the staff of our Shepherd and do not know what the future holds? We are fearful and tense; thus, on this holiday, the Talmud (Tractate Rosh Hashana) informs us, we do not recite the Hallel – the song of praise that is part of the liturgy on Jewish festivals: "The ministering angels said to G-d, 'Master of the Universe, why does Israel not sing a song of praise on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur?' 'While a King sits on his throne with the Book of Life and the Book of Death open before Him,' G-d replied, 'can Israel sing a song of praise?'"


Crowning G-d anew

However, if we take a look at the different versions of the Mishnah, we can suggest that perhaps the text should read not kivnei maron, but rather kivinumeron – like battalions parading before the King.

This interpretation changes the meaning immediately and dramatically. According to it, we are not only on trial, but rather we are participating in a military parade to celebrate a joyous occasion – namely the coronation of G-d as King of the entire universe. Thus, we can say that Rosh Hashana is actually concerned primarily with crowning G-d anew as our heavenly King, and that we must sound the trumpets in joy to honor His coronation. We must stand proudly before G-d as soldiers, and declare with utmost solemnity the fact of His dominion.

The above interpretation explains why on Rosh Hashana we do not recite Selihot – the penitential prayers we recite before Rosh Hashana and through Yom Kippur, in which we ask G-d to forgive our sins. In light of the above, we can see that Rosh Hashana has two very different, seemingly contrary, aspects: On the one hand, we fear the King's judgment and, on the other hand, we stand tall before Him as soldiers in His heavenly regal army.

These two elements may seem to be contradictory, but together they give Rosh Hashana its unique character. During its two days, we are both fearful and proud. We find this combination in the Torah: "you stand this day all of you before the L-rd your G-d; your captains of your tribes, your elders, and your officers, with all of Israel" (Deuteronomy 29:10). Rashi cites a midrash aggadah that connects the beginning of this Torah reading with the end of the previous parsha.

In the latter is a blood-chilling description of our fate should we disobey G-d: disease, devastation, banishment, a life of constant fear. Rashi states: "When Israel heard all of the 98 curses, their faces were pale as chalk as they asked Moses, 'How will we be able to go on living, now that we have such knowledge of what might befall us?' Moses comforted them, saying, 'You stand this day all of you before the Lo-rd your G-d – although you have angered G-d in the past, you have survived to this day. Take heart.'"

Each year we look back on the previous 12 months and fear the consequences of our past actions – not only at the personal level, but at the national level as well. Our "bank balance" of good deeds and bad is frightening. The blowing of the shofar is unnerving. Yet, our anxiety is countered by the knowledge that we have survived for 3500 years as a nation despite persecutions and holocausts.

Rashi ends his interpretation of the above verse with an emphasis on the word hayom (this day): "The Torah says, "You stand this day all of you before the L-rd your G-d.' Just as day never ends, but constantly passes from darkness to light and back again, similarly, G-d has shone His light upon you in the past and will continue to do so in the future. The curses and the suffering enumerated here help maintain you and they cause you to stand erect and proud before Him." (Deuteronomy 29:10)

I will end with the traditional blessing: "May this year and its curses end and may the New Year with its blessings now begin."

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