Rosh Hashanah can feel overwhelming, if not impenetrable. Even if you pray three times a day, you can find yourself in unfamiliar territory. And that’s just for the service. What is all of this spiritual accounting to ensure we are “written in the book of life,”?
In an attempt streamline the biggest of concepts, I’d like to direct your attention to the mussaf service – a fourth prayer added Shabbat and Holidays to the typical three times we pray. The fourth “mussaf” prayer usually details the sacrifices we would be doing if we still had a Temple. However after the listing of the sacrifices, the Rosh Hashanah mussaf adds three additional sections. They are Malchus, Zichronos, and Shofros.
Malchus contains the Aleinu prayer, something we say at the conclusion of prayer everyday. It is actually taken straight from the Rosh Hashanah mussaf. It details what the world will look like when God reveals Himself to the world, and there is a universal agreement about the Truth of His Divinity and Oneness. This section is important because on Rosh Hashanah we are experiencing Hashem as if He were King: close, involved, and revealed. Many of the prayers between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur change to reflect this.
Zichronos, which translates to “remembrances,” prompts the question: does ever God forget anything? When we say “remember,” think of it as the gas bill that came in the mail last week. You know you need to pay it, but maybe you put it on your to-do pile. When you finally decide to write and send the check, to deal with it, that’s the sort of remembering we’re talking about. Several places in the Torah, Hashem makes promises to individuals (Sarah giving birth to Isaac, Joseph being released from prison) but only at the right time does God fulfill those promises. It is important to note that Rosh Hashanah is known as Yom Hazicharon, the day of remembrance.
Finally there is Shofros, or Shofar blasts. Hearing the Shofar is the only mitzvah that is actually required by the Torah on Rosh Hashanah. I’ve talked about the Shofar before, so I won’t go into it here except to say that the final blessing of the Shofros section is, Blessed are you Hashem, who hears the shofar blasts of His people Israel with mercy. But what does mercy have to do with the shofar?
A Second Set of Three
Another essential triad of Rosh Hashanah comes from an obscure section of the service known as the Unesaneh Tokef (translation: Let us relate the power). It is here where we find that on Rosh Hashanah Hashem will decide for the coming year who will live and who will die.
After listing “Who by fire, who by water… etc. ) we find in bold the words, “But teshuvah, tefilah, and tzedaka remove the evil decree!” It is a broadly held belief that during the days of awe, these three actions are not only easier to do, but go farther if an individual puts in the effort. Not only that, they can save your life. But what struck me is the idea that these two sets of three must be connected somehow! How can these three actions connect us to the essential elements detailed in mussaf?
All Lined Up
My first thought was that the line up would go this way.
Malchus == Tefilah. Zichronos == Tzedaka. Shofros == Teshuvah.
If Malchus is about understanding that God runs the world, that should impact your prayers. So many times we feel our prayers go unanswered. But if we really believe that each word of our tefilah is eagerly listened to by the Master of the Universe and will certainly have an effect… that’s empowering!
Meeda Kineged Meeda (aka Measure for Measure) is basically Jewish Karma. The world treats us the way we treat the world. If Zichronos is about God finally remembering and delivering us in our times of need, then if we provide for the needs of others, that would be like us remembering them.
The Shofar blast is the voice of Hashem calling us to return to Him. That would inspire us to do teshuvah.
But upon doing some further research (or rather, asking a Rabbi to confirm my instincts) I got a little correction.
According to Rabbi Ahron Soloveichik, he saw Malchus as accepting structure. We spend so much assuming we are right and that the way we see things is the only way. Or perhaps we’re not doing what we know we need to do because we view ourselves as weak or “not there yet.” So teshuvah comes along to bring us back and give us another chance at self control. Are we going to go our way or God’s way?
Rabbi Yissocher Frand says that Zichronos is connected to self sacrifice (tzedaka). Sarah, Rachel, and Chana were all remembered on Rosh Hashanah when God finally blessed them with children. These women all had to make tremendous sacrifices for that remembrance. Sarah let Hagar into their home so Abraham could have a child, Rachel gave her sister the secrets of her and Jacob’s signs so she wouldn’t be embarrassed under the choopah, and Chana dedicated the child she was praying for to Hashem. So the connection is that when we self-sacrifice, we’re remembered. Glad my instincts were right on that one.
Finally this Rabbi (who prefers not being mentioned) suggested that the Shofar is a communication from God to us. How do we connect back to God? Our tefilah.
So as of now we’re at: Malchus == Teshuvah, Zichronos == Tzedaka, Shofros == Tefilah.
But then I decided to ask one more Rabbi.
Rabbi Cohen from The Community Shul was nice enough to look over the Unesaneh Tokef with me. He noted that tzedaka, tefilah, and teshuvah can be understood as relationships. Tzedaka is a fixing of “bein adam l’chavero” or between a person and their fellow. Tefilah is a fixing of “bein adam l’macom” or between a person and God. And Teshuvah is a fixing of “bein adam l’atzmo” or between a person and themselves. Or more simply put outward, upward, and inward.
Given this new rubric, let’s look again at the mussaf sections. Of the biblical figures I mentioned that are associated with Zichronos, let’s look at Chana. We read about her in the Haftarah on the first day of Rosh Hashanah. During her story she fervently prays at the Mishkan in Shiloh. She prays so intensely that Eli, the head priest, thinks she’s drunk. But when he realizes that’s not the case, he apologizes and blesses her, and from that she gives birth to the prophet Samuel. Chana’s fervent silent prayer became the model of how Jews pray today. So from this perspective, we’d connect Zichronos with Tefilah.
My original instinct was that Shofar was connected to Teshuvah. Though I was right on the connection, I was a little off on why. Teshuvah is often translated as repentance. But the Hebrew actually means return to our purest self. Who we were before we commit a sin. Rosh Hashanah commemorates not the creation of the world, but the creation of mankind. Specifically, when God blew the neshama (a higher level soul) into Adam. The Rabbis say that the sound of this blowing was that of the Shofar. The Shofar acts to remind us of our truest, purest self. If we listen to that voice from inside, our teshuvah is the mercy reference in the prayer I mentioned above.
So by process of elimination, Malchos must connect to Tzedaka. Why? Most of us are of the delusion that our money comes from our efforts and our genius. But as many of us know, there are plenty of smart hard working people who struggle financially, especially in these difficult times. To give tzedaka is not an act of charity but an act of justice. God is who is really in charge of our bank accounts. If we give tzedaka thinking we are virtuous, we’ve missed the point. But if we are aware that God runs the world, we view our salaries not as an entitlement, but as a gift. At that point, tzedaka becomes a joy and a duty, and we recognize God as King.
Zichonos == Tefilah, Shofros == Teshuvah, Malchus === Tzedaka.
What is the Right Answer?
Does it really matter which set matches up with each set? Probably not. As the wisest of us often say, the question is more important than the answer. But by wrestling with the question, we come to know so much more about all aspects that make up the question. And that’s what being inscribed in the book of life Rosh Hashanah is all about. A life of engagement and a life of growth.
I will probably never understand all of the Rosh Hashanah service. But that doesn’t mean I shouldn’t try to. Whether you try to learn one sentence, try to connect with one of the poems, or even just read commentary at the bottom, you’re engaging. As long as you’re not choosing to zone out, focusing on the number of pages left, or taking bathroom breaks to pass the time, then you just might find a place in the book of life.