Rosh Hashanah is a difficult holiday to wrap our heads around. At the forefront there is the notion of being inscribed in the Book of Life and God’s judgement. And through those are two essential aspects of the day, I think the way we generally interpret those notions is off. Was I good enough? How much more should I have done? Why isn’t my life better? Can it be decreed that I finally get what I didn’t get last year?
This focus on our needs just may be counter to the whole point of the day.
I heard an idea expressed by writer David Sacks on the mitzvah of bikurim. Last week’s Torah portion Ki Savo opens with the details of the mitzvah. In Temple times, those living in Israel had an obligation to take the very first fruit of the harvest and offer them as a sacrifice to the Temple. There are tremendous ideas of gratitude and trusting God clearly inherent in the mitzvah.
But the fresh idea that Mr. Sacks points out is that the Hebrew word for the Temple (Beis Hamikdash) has the same gematria as the word Rosh Hashanah. If you’re not familiar with gematria, essentially it’s a deeper level of understanding Torah where each letter of the Hebrew alphabet has a numerical value, א is 1, ב is 2, ג is 3 and so on. Add up all the letters and then every word has a numerical value. It is understood that words with the same gematria are profoundly connected. So when the verse about bikurim tells you to take the first fruits, put them in a basket and bring them to the Temple, it can also be understood that we are to bring them to Rosh Hashanah.
But what exactly are we supposed to bring to Rosh Hashanah? I’m certainly not coming to shul with a basket of produce.
What do these first fruits represent for us today? Regardless of how we want to look at the holiday, there’s no disagreement that Rosh Hashanah is a new beginning. But if we want to get the most out of a fresh start, perhaps we should look at the freshest of fresh starts, the creation of the world.
The very first word of the Torah is בראשית, or Bereishis, often translated as “in the beginning.” But there’s a Midrash that says Bereishis can be broken down to ב and ראשית. That ב being the Hebrew prefix for “in” or “with” and ראשית meaning “firsts.” So another way of reading that is “For the sake of firsts, God created heaven and earth.” The Rabbis say that this Midrash means that for the sake of the mitzvah of the first fruits the world was created. Essentially, the point of creation was for the sake of expressing gratitude.
The whole notion of prayer as it is performed today is a replacement for the sacrifices of the Temple. Without the Beis Hamikdash the Men of the Great Assembly constructed the prayer services as we know them today to correspond to the different types of sacrifices offered. One of the sacrifices was known as a todah or gratitude sacrifice. The Midrash Tehillim comments that the one who thanks God for their good fortune, it’s as if they have brought a korbon todah fulfilling this gratitude obligation.
But where in the davening (prayer) of the Rosh Hashanah service do we uniquely find the place for gratitude to God? Yes, there is the modim (gratitude) section of the davening, but we say that everyday. A Rabbi I recently asked this question to said it is specifically in the section of the Rosh Hashanah prayer concerning Malchios.
On Rosh Hashanah our prayers have three unique sections. Shofar, Zechronos (remembrances), and Malchios (making God king). There are many ways we can recognize that God is king of the world. But the most profound and empowering way is to recognize all that He has done for you. According to a 2008 study at UCLA, cultivating gratitude literally changes the molecular structure of the brain. When we recognize and appreciate all that God has done for us, not only does it foster closeness with Him, according to the Rabbis of the Talmud gratitude brings down more blessing. But most importantly, when we are standing in front of God, asking for another year, how much more profound would that request be if you can appreciate what He has done for you already? Think about any time anyone has asked you for anything. Who were you more likely to give that favor to? Someone who valued or appreciated what you did for them in the past? Or someone who only comes around when they need something?
What Have You Done?
With the New Year we’re always thinking about resolutions and commitments of who we want to be in the new year. That by definition is a focus on all the ways we fell short. But in David Sacks’s class on bikurim, he himself says that the basket to bring to Hashem on Rosh Hashanah are all the things we have accomplished. Remember the basket of first fruits were the very first returns on a year’s investment. Literally the fruits of one’s labors. They are something to be proud of.
So wouldn’t it be appropriate that on Rosh Hashanah the thing to focus on wouldn’t be where we fell short, but where we excelled? This is a particularly potent idea for me as I have a tendency to focus on my failures and quickly move past my successes. David Sacks specifically says the following (I’m not going to try to paraphrase it because he puts it so beautifully.)
“I’m not sure who said it, but a person has to confess the things they are doing right, if you will. That’s very important because unless you know you’re doing things right, you can’t have that positive outlook where you will interpret the world as a positive place and that God is good.” (whole class here)
Further on this idea were the words of Rabbi Abraham Twerski who was known for saying, “Everyone knows what’s wrong with themselves. They often don’t realize what is right.” We can also connect to the shofar. The sounding of the shofar has three distinct blowings. Tekia is a long intact sound while teruah and shevarim are broken. The broken sounds of the latter two symbolize the cries our soul feels over mistakes we’ve made. But surrounding those broken sounds are the intact tekias, reminding us that we are inherently good. The unbroken tekia starts the sounding and the prolonged (and always impressive) tekia gedolah ends it, instilling in us that we’re headed for perfection.
But we don’t live in a world of shofar blasts. The world we live in is one that functions to put us down. Advertising targets our insecurities so we’ll buy their products to live up to their impossible criteria for self worth. Most work environments are over stressed incubators where the crap rolls down hill. And unfortunately many of us are subject to relationships where our partners or family members may seem like they dwell on your mistakes. For all these reasons we have to make the effort and time to recognize, contemplate, and remember (hey that’s one of the three unique aspects of the holiday) all that we’ve actually succeeded in over the past year.
The Avodah of Rosh Hashanah
The sacrifices of the Temple were referred to as work or avodah. Now our prayers are that work, hence why we call it a prayer service. We are serving Hashem. But all the regret and mistakes we have surrounding whether we are going to get a good judgement, are not what Rosh Hashanah is about. We have a whole other day for that. Rosh Hashanah is about knowing where you stand. And unless you’ve completely checked out and given up, there’s a good chance you’ve got some wonderful achievements to be proud of. Yes God knows what you did, but remember this whole thing is about a connection. Share those with Him as your offering. Then remember what He’s done for you. Because without that, can you even tell if the year He’s given you is good or not?