Rosh Hashanah and the Sound of the Shofar

Rosh Hashanah and the Sound of the Shofar

Our Sages say that “Everything goes after the beginning” (Midrash). As time spirals through its seasonal phases (“…In those days, in these times” [Chanukah Blessing]), the energy that lends itself inspiration and revitalization as the point of beginning peaks on Rosh Hashanah.

The spiritual forces operating at the point of conception represent the building of genes, which are the blueprint for everything developed later in time. The entire course of any process is determined by its beginning; no subsequent moment can ever have the intensity and significance of that first moment. The closer the activity appears to the moment of conception, the more potent and critical are its forces. A small injury to an adult human body may not be of major significance, but even a scratch in the development of a fetus can be serious enough to require surgery, and a genetic error could be fatal. The entire course of any process is determined by its beginning; no subsequent moment can ever have the intensity and significance of that first moment.

Rosh Hashanah is the conception of the year, and the next Ten Days of Atonement prior to Yom Kippur are its gestation. That is why we are judged for the entire year as they appear on Rosh Hashanah — our current personalities are present at their core, and it would take supreme efforts later to make fundamental changes. By contrast, changes on Rosh Hashanah are much simpler, where, through much effort, we can manipulate the blueprint of our character. It is a long-standing tradition to take extreme care to live in perfect harmony with our faith during the Ten Days of Atonement.

One who seeks to energize, amplify, and regenerate the power of new creation should utilize the power of Rosh Hashanah. What is the source of this special energy that we tap into?

The first Rosh Hashanah was the day of the Creation of Humanity. Going forward in time, the day retains its power to re-create humanity every year. When we sincerely and intensely work to elevate our personalities on Rosh Hashanah and become inspired to live the coming year as greater beings, we are using the day’s deeply rooted human-creation energy. The day has the power to energize real change and help the penitent become the people they want to be. The service of the day reflects this idea of reaching for the root. The order of prayer is based on Sovereignty (Malchuyos), Remembrances (Zichronos), and Shofar blasts (Shofros).

Additionally, Adam is said to have been created at the place where the Temple’s Altar later would stand. “Adam was created from [dust taken from] the place of his atonement” (Bereishit Rabba 14:8). The Altar is the spot which would later become the site of sacrifices, through which we most powerfully atone and come closer to Hashem. The moment of Adam’s creation is simultaneously the point of most intense newness and contains within it the element of most intense possible change, where a penitent could go from sin to atonement, in effect resulting in new creation itself. The power of Rosh Hashanah to help renew us explains the Kabbalistic custom of avoiding sleep.

What’s the connection between repentance, Rosh Hashanah, and free will?

The entire world is judged on Rosh Hashanah (Mishnah Rosh Hashanah 1:2). Maimonides said that Free Will is given to every human being, so that if we wants to bend ourselves in the ways of good and be righteous, we has the capability to do so, as well as its opposite (Mishneh Torah). Human beings are singular in the world in that only the humans and their Creator have Free Will, and from their consciousness intrinsically know good and evil. Morality of good and evil are coded into our own consciousness, not externalities foisted upon us – an empowering thought. That is how Abraham Our Forefather could argue with Hashem about the morality of destroying Sodom and Gomorrah, and Hashem accedes to Abraham’s points.

Rosh Hashanah represents the inner essence of idea, like the first place a concept is mentioned in the Torah (a form of compressed data in its totality). An unfolding process occurs like a child’s conception and fetal development, where the fusing of genes contains the totality of the child’s potential in the earliest moments, followed by embryonic development that are subsequently less critically important than the earlier moments. The closer we get to conception, the more critical are the genetic expressions. Rosh Hashanah is the first and most critical moment of the year, the day where “genes of the year” are fused.

The root of being, i.e., who you are at the level of your consciousness, is your Desire (ratzon), the point at which there is no prior cause or source (mekor) to your Desire – i.e., “I want it because I want it.” This is also the place of Free Will; if it were not so, there would be a prior cause to blame, and the result would have been predetermined. Animals and machines are essentially feedback loops of cause and effect. This is the moment of intentionality, and the “Nothing From Something” (yesh mi’ayin) – spontaneous generation, originality from a spark of volition that wasn’t there before. After the Free Will has decided its course, subsequent actions are merely automated, mechanical responses, external manifestations of Desire (“it’s the thought that counts”). The “Nothing From Something” is the point where the spiritual thought connects with the physical process — that is the place of Free Will.

“I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse. Choose life, that you and your seed may live” (Deuteronomy 30:19).

At macro level, Hashem is found at the point of origin, so to speak. At the micro level, it is Man and his Free Will. We are created in the image of Hashem (Bi’tzelem Elokim) which the Sages connect, in its deepest sense, to Free Will (Meshech Chochma and others). Hashem and Free Will are both outside the explainable universe. Maimonides says that, while most of our actions are not animated by Free Will, those that are happen where we perform meaningful actions in a morally good or bad manner, for which there is no prior cause for it other than what we decide, casting responsibility for those actions upon ourselves. This is what Rosh Hashanah is all about.

Rosh Hashanah is about being judged against your own potential when you lift yourself to your point of origin. Repentance means returning to the beginnings of your consciousness, examining your ultimate Desire, and changing it where appropriate. You can’t change this Desire by yourself, but you can implore Hashem to do so if you voluntarily give up the desire, a destruction of ego of sorts. This is also represented by our reading of the binding of Isaac (akeidah), the binding oneself on the altar of our own immolation, saying “I’m here to reflect and project something beyond me, by giving up who I am and making myself transparent.” In this way, I go beyond my Self. The paradox is that, by giving up my Self, I become the best version of myself that I can be.

Take-Away Points

  • In both the physical and spiritual realms, the place of greatest potential for change and growth with the greatest intensity and significance is at the point of conception.
  • With Rosh Hashanah representing the conception of the New Year, we are judged for the entire year as our actions appear on that day. “At four times of the year the world is judged: … on Rosh Hashanah, all creatures pass before Him like sheep, as it is stated: “He Who fashions their hearts alike, Who considers all their deeds” (Psalms 33:15)” (Mishnah Rosh Hashanah 1:2).
  • Free Will acts at the place of Desire (ratzon), the point at which there is no prior cause or source, the moment of intentionality, of creating “Nothing From Something” where the physical touches the spiritual. This is the point of Rosh Hashanah.

(This post is part of Sinai and Synapses’ project Scientists in Synagogues, a grass-roots program to offer Jews opportunities to explore the most interesting and pressing questions surrounding Judaism and science. On Thursday, September 2, 2022, Rabbi Dr. Akiva Tatz spoke at a pre-Rosh Hashanah event at Aish Chaim in Bala Cynwyd, Lower Merion Township, PA, that was attended by more than 100 participants. The piece below reflects the writer’s best attempt to summarize the content of the talk, supplemented by online content from Rabbi Tatz to complete any gaps. Any errors or omissions should be attributed to the writer alone).

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