Rosh Hashanah: The Head of the Year

“And He humbled you, and suffered you to hunger, and fed you with manna, which you knew not, neither did your fathers know; that He might make you know that man does not live by bread only, but by every word that proceeds out of the mouth of the Lord does man live.” – Deuteronomy 8:3

“The correct way to pray on Rosh Hashanah is to pray on the first day for tikkun haneshama [the fixing of our soul] and all matters relating to serving God, and then on the second day to pray for all our physical needs (children, health and sustenance), and for the needs of all of Israel.”[1]

– Rebbe Yisrael of Kosnitz


Rosh Hashanah is a time of setting our priorities. It is a time of refocusing our aspirations and goals. Rebbe Yisrael is telling us in no uncertain terms what the order of our priorities needs to be: God and our spiritual life come first; our physical needs follow afterward.

Such a realignment of priorities will have a profound effect on our entire life. It will impact our daily decisions. It will change the way we spend our time. It will establish the consciousness that we carry with us during the next twelve months.

Rosh Hashanah literally means the “head of the year”. The manner in which we begin our year will influence our entire year. It will determine how we confront the challenges that we face, and how we respond to the opportunities we are offered.

The Yamim Noraim (Days of Awe) are a time to clarify our convictions and values. They are a chance to deepen our faith and broaden our understanding of reality. They are an occasion to ask ourselves why we have come into the world.

According to the tradition, we blow the shofar (ram’s horn) on Rosh Hashanah to remind God of the Akedat Yitzhak (the Binding of Isaac) – to place before the Universal Mind the great suffering and sacrifice that the Patriarchs and Matriarchs underwent for the sake of heaven. We recall the merit of our forefathers and mothers, our zechut avot v’imahot, in the hope that their merit will awaken God’s compassion, and draw that infinite compassion down upon Israel, the Jewish people and the whole of humankind.

The shofar is sounded for God and it is sounded for us. The shofar reminds us that we are part of a noble vision and mission. It reconnects us to the truth that we belong to a vast and ancient Soul – a soul that stretches way up into the Kingdom of Heaven. The shofar is a symbol of the commitment and faith of our forefathers and mothers. It is a plea for us to remain faithful to the spiritual path that they set out upon three thousand five hundred years ago.

The shofar is a heavenly call that stirs us out of our complacency and breaks our habitual patterns of thought and behavior. It is an exhortation to high aspiration and selfless action. The shofar awakens our inner processes and urges us to discover who we really are.

The shofar is a reminder that the body is only a vehicle for the soul. It is a physical instrument created to serve the needs of the Spirit. During the High Holydays we pray first for tikkun neshama, the repair of our soul, because on Rosh Hashanah we realize that without a vital inner life we are not truly alive.

How do we achieve this profound realignment of mind, body and spirit on Rosh Hashanah? How does this inner transformation take place?

The path which will create this great alignment is outlined for us in the musaf service, the additional standing prayer that we recite uniquely on Rosh Hashanah. This prayer has three sections. The three sections are called: malchuyot (kingship), zichronot (memories or remembrance), and shofarot (blasts of the ram’s horn).

The Hasidic Master, Yehudah Aryeh Leib Alter of Ger, links each of these three sections with one of the three Patriarchs.[2] He believes that it is the spiritual power of the three Patriarchs which is revealed through the musaf prayers.

The Talmud Brachot 26B tells us that the Patriarchs fixed the three daily prayer services. Each of these three services represents a different mode of prayer and embodies a specific spiritual force. It is these potent energies which vitalize our process of realignment and transformation on Rosh Hashanah.

What is the nature of these three prayers?

The Talmud tells us that Abraham established the morning prayers (shacharit). The prayer of Abraham captures the bright light of morning. It is a song composed of praise and thanksgiving. This is the reason that Abraham is linked with the section called malchuyot – kingship.

Abraham was the first person to understand that there is one God who is the Lord of the Universe. His prayer is the praise of God as the Master and Creator. It is a prayer of gratitude for the beautiful world which He or She has given us. It is a psalm of thanksgiving for the glory of a sunrise and the miracle of a human birth. It is an homage of gratitude for the gift of self-awareness, the ability to experience the world around us – to know God and to know ourselves.

Yitzhak established the afternoon prayer (minchah). The Torah tells us, “And Isaac went out into the fields to meditate towards evening” (Genesis 24:63). Dusk is a time of contemplation. It is a moment when we can examine ourselves and our day. It is an opportunity to look at who we are and who we want to be.

This is why Yitzhak is connected to the musaf section called zichronot (remembrance). Minchah is a time of memories when we reflect on the journey that we have completed and the road which still lies ahead. The Biblical phrase “and Isaac went out to meditate in the fields” is written at a critical juncture in Isaac’s life. It comes after he has been through the transforming experience of the Akedah. It follows the death of his beloved mother Sarah and her burial in the Cave of the Machpelah. It takes place while his father’s servant Eliezer is at the home of Avraham’s brother Nahor in Paddan Aram searching for Isaac’s wife.

Isaac goes out into the fields to contemplate the events of his life up until that moment, to reflect on the future that he wants for himself. This is the prayer of minchah – contemplation, reflection and self-examination. It is a time of zichronot, of evoking and examining memories.

Jacob established the evening prayer (maariv). After receiving the blessings of the firstborn from his father Isaac, Jacob flees his home in fear of his brother Esau. As he heads towards an unknown destiny, the Torah tells us “And he lighted [yifgah – touched] on a certain place, and tarried there all night” (Genesis 28:11). The Talmud explains that the word yifgah signifies prayer. As night fell in this time of uncertainty and distress, Jacob began to pray.

Jacob’s prayer is an appeal that arises out of the darkness – the prayer of anguish and despair. It is shofarot, the cry of the ram’s horn, a call from the depth of our soul. It is a plea beyond words or language that reaches out into the Absolute.

That night, after he prays, Jacob experiences the vision of a ladder stretching from earth up into the heavens, with angels ascending and descending upon its rungs. This astonishing revelation leads him to exclaim, “How awesome is this place! This is no other than the house of God and this is the gate of heaven” (Genesis 28:17). This most profound prayer lies at the heart of the spiritual life. It comes from the core of our being and leads us into the living Presence of God.

These three modes of prayer, and the three sections of the musaf service which parallel them, form the basis for the process of realignment and renewal that we undergo on Rosh Hashanah. This process, then, has three distinct stages.

We begin with gratitude and thanksgiving. We focus on the many blessings that we have received in our lives, rather than dwell on our suffering and failures. We strive to contact the place in our heart where we know that everything comes from God. We try to accept that whatever has happened is what God wants for us, and therefore, it must be true and right.

The next step is personal reflection – to really look at ourselves. We take stock of the journey which has been our life. We gaze back at where we have come from, examine where we are today, and then determine where we want to be in the future.

The final stage is aspiration – to reach beyond ourselves and transcend our personality limitations. We strip away all of the external facades and dive deep into the core of our being. Then we call out to God from this pure and pristine place and move forward with all of our heart, mind and soul.

These three stages provide the foundation for our process of renewal and rededication. Thanksgiving allows us to let go of our negative feelings. It makes bitterness, regret and depression fall away, and opens the door to blessing and higher emanations. Memory clarifies where we are in our spiritual journey and where we need to go – it sets the need and focuses the goals. Diving deep within fans the spark of God inside us; it provides the power we need to vitalize our inner transformation and bring it to life. It links us back to the source – to the infinite creative power that underlies the universe and is in every living creature. With this force as our engine, we can achieve anything.

This is how we transform Rosh Hashanah into the true “head” of the new year. Thanksgiving, self-awareness and high aspiration will take us into the New Year renewed and realigned. They will enable us to be fully present, spiritually awakened and inwardly filled with joy. They will empower us to rededicate our lives and sanctify our existence; to fulfill the Divine purpose for which we have come into this world.

 

Copyright © 2012, by Yoel Glick



Acknowledgements    (↵ returns to text)

  1. Yisrael of Kosnitz, Avodat Yisrael
  2.  Yehudah Aryeh Leib Alter of Ger, Sefat Emet, Rosh Hashanah