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 Hashanah night and expect to be inspired. We need to prepare in advance, to think about what we are meant to be doing on Rosh Hashanah; 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.
Getting back to basics
One of the most important things we can do to get ourselves into the right mindset for these times is to go back to the basics and core principles of Judaism by uncluttering our lives. The Talmud says that the best time of our lives is when we are foetuses in the womb, as all of our needs are taken care of there. We have safety, security, food and drink and all our needs are met. But there is a passage in the Talmud (Tractate Niddah pg 30b) that says the foetus inside the mother’s womb looks like a folded over account book; a candle burns above the foetus’ head so it can see from one side of the world to the other during this time. An angel teaches the foetus all the principles and laws of the Torah; but as the foetus emerges into the world, the angel touches the foetus on the mouth and the newborn baby enters the world having forgotten all the Torah wisdom it had learnt.
On Shabbat Shuva, the Shabbat of Repentance between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, the Maharal of Prague – one of our great philosophers who lived in the 1600s – quoted this passage in his sermon. He interpreted it by saying that the foetus represents the essence of the human being. It is described as a folded over account book showing that we are accountable for all our deeds and that our deeds are ‘written’ on our souls because we are like a book. G-d does not write our deeds in some remote book; they are written on us, because our actions influence us, and we are ultimately judged and held accountable for our choices.
A core principle of being human is accountability and responsibility. It is in this area that the first human being stumbled so badly. When Adam and Eve sinned, they did not take responsibility – Adam blamed his actions on Eve, and Eve accused the serpent. This was the birth of our humanity and it became part of the human condition to avoid taking responsibility.
The Sforno, one of our perceptive commentators of the Middle Ages, points out the contrast between Adam avoiding responsibility, and King David – when he sinned and was approached by the Prophet about his wrongdoings, King David immediately admitted to them. And that’s what Rosh Hashanah is about. We need to be honest and to accept the responsibility to say that we have done something wrong and are prepared to be accountable before G-d, and begin the process of repentance.
Rosh Hashanah is the Day of Judgment, but it’s also the beginning of the ten days of repentance, which climax in Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. That atonement is dependent on our repentance, which is dependent on our accountability and responsibility.
The Maharal says that the foetus’ hands are by his temple, symbolising the fact that human beings must think. He says that emotions are the most powerful force within the human being, but we should strive to rise above them and think clearly about life and our purpose in this world.
There is the famous image used by the Prophet Jeremiah. He says people act as if they are horses in a cavalry charge. These horses are not thinking about the reason for their charging; they are simply doing so because they are driven to do so, even if it is to their detriment. Similarly, in modern day horse racing, the horses don’t know why they must run to the finish line or the purpose of the race; they run because they are forced to. In life, the Prophet says, we must not simply charge ahead and run because everyone else is doing it. Rosh Hashanah is about stopping and asking what the purpose of our lives is and whether we are, in fact, fulfilling that purpose.
The Maharal explains further that the foetus is in a bowing position, with its heels tucked underneath it as if it is bowing before G-d and submitting before His authority. A major theme of the prayers on Rosh Hashanah is the Kingship of G-d, because Rosh Hashanah is the anniversary of the day that G-d became King. This is because, prior to the creation of Adam and Eve, there were no beings in the world who could freely choose and acknowledge G-d as King. By recognising G-d as King, we are acknowledging His authority over our lives and submitting before His Will.
Seeing the bigger picture
Although the foetus is folded over, it still has great vision and can see from one side of the world to the other. The Talmud compares this to a person who, while sleeping in one place, can dream and see things in a completely different world. The Maharal explains that this image of the Talmud refers analogously to the human capacity for vision and for understanding life’s bigger picture. Often in life we get entangled in details and become distracted. Distraction is one of the enemies of leading a great life. The Ramchal, Rav Moshe Chaim Luzzatto, explains that one of the greatest threats to growing and becoming a great person is busyness. The Ramchal is one of our great Jewish philosophers who lived in Italy in the 18th century. He writes this in one of his classics of Jewish philosophy and ethical conduct – The Path of the Just. He says that people get so busy with life that they forget about the bigger picture. He brings the example of Pharaoh when Moshe and Aharon came before him, saying let our people go. Pharaoh’s immediate response was that the people were thinking about freedom and liberation, so he made them work harder so they would be distracted and wouldn’t have the time or the headspace to think lofty thoughts of liberation. So too, in our lives, the busier we get, the more cluttered our vision becomes until we are unable to see the bigger picture.
Rosh Hashanah is about clearing the space in our lives to see the bigger picture and where we should be headed. According to the Talmud, that bigger picture should be influenced by two things. It says that “the flame of G-d is the soul of man”, and that a flame burns above the head of each child. This flame represents the neshoma, the soul of man which is given to us by G-d. The Talmud explains the comparison between the soul and G-d by saying that we can sense the spiritual reality of the world – G-d’s presence. One of the most powerful factors we have access to when it comes to the presence of G-d in the world is our own soul. When the foetus is in the womb, the soul within the foetus is the light that burns. The big picture connects us to the depths of our soul, which is why it must be clear and uncluttered as it is the soul that guides us and tells us when we are doing right and wrong.
Why would an angel teach a child the entire Torah and then, as they are leaving the womb, cause them to forget it. The Maharal explains that this is not literally about being taught every line of the Torah, but rather that the Torah is the blueprint for our lives and that that blueprint is placed in the heart of who we are. Who we are and the way we live our lives is the very blueprint of our souls and is in our subconscious.
As the foetus is being born, the Talmud says it takes an oath to be righteous and not wicked. The child then goes out into the world and tries to maintain loyalty and commitment to the original oath that was taken when that child entered the world.
Another passage in the Talmud says that one day when a person leaves this world, the same angel will come to call them to give an account of their deeds before G-d.
That is what Rosh Hashanah is all about – understanding that we came into this world to do good according to G-d’s Will and are now accountable for our actions. We have to review our lives, have broad vision, submit before G-d and stay loyal to Judaism’s core principles.
As we look to the year ahead, we acknowledge that along with the changes in the world, we too are physically changing. As a person grows, they enter different phases of their lives. They are either growing and getting stronger and bigger, or they are deteriorating. We cannot alter this as change is part of life. But what we can do is ensure that our lives are anchored to the fundamental core, unchanging principles that G-d created within us. When we connect to those fundamental core principles, then we transcend all of the changes of this world, and that’s part of what Rosh Hashanah is about. We go back to G-d and we clarify, we take responsibility for our actions, we submit before G-d and we say let’s get back to the basics.
As we head towards Rosh Hashanah, we can all use the time to introspect, to reflect and to realise that Rosh Hashanah is the beginning of the ten days of repentance, which will reach its climax and high point on Yom HaKippurim, the Day of Atonement. This is a gift from G-d. It is an opportunity to reflect, renew and refresh ourselves to enter the new year with the confidence of being anchored to our core principles.